The earthquake in Nepal in April 2015 killed an estimated 8000 men women and children. It was an appalling tragedy in a country that was, let’s be generous, not the best equipped to deal with an emergency tang affected such a large area. It came exactly a week after another disaster – this one led to the deaths of around 800 – that I’d been sent to cover in the Mediterranean Ocean. The sinking of a boat full of migrants off the Libyan coast had appalled many people in Europe and beyond and I’d been sent to cover the funerals of e handful of bodies that had been gathered up in the sea. I’d spent a week in Malta and arrived home in the early hours of Friday morning. Twenty four hours later the earthquake hit. I sent a text message to my News Editor, Stephen Mawhinney.
“Complicated but I’m thinking about it”.
12 hours later I was on my way to Manchester Airport with the largest amount of equipment I’ve ever carried to a job.
As well as a few clothes, cold weather gear, safety gear, med kits, sleeping bags and food supplies I was carrying my standard sat dish – a Hughes 9202, a Glensound ISDN codec for voice work – the smallest I could find, 6 packs of D Cell batteries, a charger for the sat dish, mics, cables, cans, iPad & iPhone (loaded with Luci Live and Voddio for lives and editing) & accompanying chargers and batteries, an unlocked mifi, a world-compatible Samsung (yes, I know…), a DSLR, tripod and a few more mics and cables for good luck. RyanAir would have had a field day on excess baggage.. but luckily, for me, they don’t fly to Abu Dhabi yet. It may not look like much but I’d just arrived back from Malta where I only had hand luggage for a week…
Arriving in Nepal, I no longer felt bad about the amount of kit I had – NBC turned up with more Peli cases than I thought existed in the States, CBS turned up with more people than I thought existed in the Western World. I jumped a lift to the hotel that BBC staff were staying in after spotting those three magical letters in the front of a car parked outside the airport. Minutes after arriving it was time for my first broadcast. Sending a reporter half way round the world is an expensive investment and it’s important to ‘pay that back’, as it were, by getting on air as quickly after my arrival as possible. it was one of around 50 I was to do in the next five days. Just as I was about to go live via satellite, the birds took off from the trees and shutters rattled on shop fronts. It was the first of over a hundred after shocks to hit me in Nepal that week. Most of them I didn’t feel – but the first one I did. I’d used satellite because mobile comms were already proving to be less than reliant. I’d bought a local SIM card with data at the airport but it worked much less than my standard UK mobile on roaming. Luckily, before I’d left, I’d talked to the BBC’s telecom team who’d worked out a deal with O2 which allowed me 200mb a day of data as well as calls. As I’ll mention a little further into this piece – it was an important deal to strike.
That night, we thought it too dangerous to stay in the hotel so it was a case of hunkering down in our sleeping bags outside.
After an 18 hour flight it wasn’t a problem getting to sleep.
The first full day saw me hitch a lift with the BBC TV live team, led on air by Yalda Hakim. We drove up – past the cremation sites on the outskirts of Kathmandu – to Bhaktapur.
One of the most important sites in the country for its temples a number had collapsed. Again, using satellite, I was able to broadcast but I noticed how low in the sky the sat dish was.. and, even more strangely, there appeared to be two satellites in the sky 180 degrees away from each other. I’d forgotten just how far away from Europe we were. But both sats were low and it was causing me and other broadcasters problems. Built up areas meant the satellites weren’t able to be ‘seen’ and mobile comms were all but impossible – I checked data rates and they were too low to broadcast over – or even file large pics or audio.
Torrential rain in the afternoon in Durbar Square in Kathmandu brought a fresh set of problems as cables and connections were soaked. High winds started to move the sat around as well which led to the first use of the remains of a temple being used to secure a sat dish. You’ll be glad to know I replaced the stones afterwards.
Kathmandu was an incredibly safe city to be in. There was no lawlessness that I saw, no looting and people didn’t mind me being there or talking to them and photographing them. I’m really pleased with some of the images I managed to take on my iPhone 6 Plus which, once again, proved that a device that people are comfortable with will open doors which would be shut in your face if you pulled out a DSLR.
The next day we managed to get out of the capital and head north into the hills. We headed for a village we knew had been badly hit in the Sindhupalchok district. We got out of the 4×4 and, carrying my kit in a rucksack we walked round a corner and arrived in Hell on earth.
Amazingly, given the scale of destruction, when I checked my mobile phone there was a good 3G signal. In the middle of a disaster in the middle of nowhere. So I hit Periscope as I wandered around the village. This wasn’t rehearsed – so as the scale of the damage hit me you can see my hand start to shake.
The rest of the day was spent seeing and witnessing one lousy awful miserable depressing thing after another. Homes were ruined, lives were lost, bodies found and still the people of the village were welcoming and friendly. At the end of the day a boy asked me if I had any face masks he could have as the smell of what was left behind of his home was so bad he was having trouble sleeping.
This will annoy anyone who works on shows at other times of the day but Breakfast is where it’s at in terms of a radio audience. It’s the programme you do most planning for. Normally I’ll have recorded material, edited it and worked out what I’m going to say before I hit the pillow the night before. In Nepal the time difference meant I was waking up at 0200 UK time. I had four hours to find a story each day and get it on the air. One day I went into town and was working in an area near a bus station that had been badly hit. Apartment blocks had shunted down in height from 7 stories to 5, some buildings bowed towards me in the street.
This wasn’t a safe area to be in so I came out and looked across the busy four lane wide road. On the other side dozens of Army officers were running into an alley way. A nod’s as good as a wink to a blind horse. I ran over – not an easy feat in a country where roundabouts are driven round in both directions at the same time. In the alleyway were hundreds of soldiers, police and rescue workers from the USA and France.
At the bottom was a 15 year old boy, entombed in a concrete crypt. He was alive and for the next two hours as they tried to dig him out I commentated on events, almost like a football match, explaining on the air what was happening and what equipment they were using.
Nobody has said to me “why were you on the phone?” or “why weren’t you on satellite in pristine 20-20k?”. I was on a scratchy intercontinental phone line but, for all those journalism students out there, it didn’t matter. The only thing that did matter was the event – did the boy survive? How did they get him out? What condition was he in? How did he survive? (yes, carefully, sitting up and eating half an hour later and he survived by eating ghee and sucking water from a wet cloth). I couldn’t get a satellite signal because the buildings around me were so tall and the sat is so low in the sky but, ultimately, it didn’t matter – all anyone wanted to know was what happened, they weren’t worried about the quality of the phone line.
I could have used that as a template for the rest of my time in Nepal but there is a certain element of pride in wanting your broadcast signal to sound as good as it can – so the rest of the week was spent juggling battery life and location to use as little juice as possible. With the last live broadcast, the batteries gave out – as did mine I guess. But there was one problem – Breakfast wanted a last package to run 7 days after the quake happened.
There was just one more trick up my sleeve – I recorded the interviews at the airport and quickly did a few links. On the plane I mixed the piece ready to send it from Abu Dhabi airport on the way home as they had wifi. And then the plane was delayed. A rush from one part of the airport to the next meant I didn’t have any time to file the last piece and as I got on the plane I saw the poor 3G signal disappear and become an E instead. Luckily airlines have decided it’s ok to offer wifi and roaming on board a plane nowadays (when did it stop being so dangerous that staff would scour a plane before take-off scolding anyone who hadn’t turned off their phone and thrown the batteries 25m away?) so the final piece was filed for 5live from 35,000 feet on the final leg of the journey.
I’ve thought about how to end this piece. And decided on doing it by giving you an insight into the people of Nepal. On the first day I was there I dropped a dollar on the street as I fumbled around in my pockets. A man ran after me to give me it back. On the second day I left my credit card in an ATM. The next person to go into the little booth again ran out to return it to me. IMG_1611On the last night, as I broadcast in pitch black in an area of Kathmandu where every house had been emptied, where there were no street lights, no cars and only a bunch of wild dogs for company I watched two men get out of a parked car and walk over to me. I feared the worst. I was about to be robbed. I split my cash into different pockets in an effort to save onto a little and waited.
“It’s dark. Hard to see what you’re doing. Here’s a torch – bring it back to us when you’ve finished.. we’re sleeping in that car over there.”
Bad things happen to good people.
You can donate to the UK’s Disaster Emergency Committee fund to help Nepal here.