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Himalayan villagers tell of quake chaos, 110 dead
by Staff Writers
Chungthang, India (AFP) Sept 22, 2011

Military helicopters on Thursday reached remote villages in northeast India cut off for four days by a strong earthquake which killed at least 110 people across four countries.

Terrified local people reported how their houses were destroyed by boulders careering down the mountainside, flattening walls and crushing people inside when the 6.9-magnitude earthquake struck on Sunday evening.

Landslides and rockfalls have blocked all roads into the north of Sikkim, leaving rescue teams battling to evacuate the injured by air and relief organisers still uncertain about the scale of the destruction.

In Gangtok, the state capital of Sikkim, officials said the toll had risen to 78 by Thursday morning. Another 18 people died in neighbouring Indian states, seven people in Chinese Tibet, six in Nepal and one in Bhutan.

At Chungthang, a village close to the epicentre, Phulmaya Lepcha, 36, told AFP how her teenage son was killed when rocks loosened by tremors rolled down the valley, smashing everything in their path.

"Like every day, I was feeding my goat in the shed," she said. "Suddenly hell broke loose. The ground shook. I was trembling and screaming and within minutes, I lost my son and my house. The rocks killed him.

"He always said that we lived in paradise."

Chungthang is the base for thousands of migrants working at engineering projects and the nearby Teesta hydroelectric plant, which lost 18 employees in house collapses and the landslides that buried many roads.

More than 135 buildings and single-storey houses were damaged or destroyed in Chungthang, which is also a popular stopping-off point for trekkers -- including foreigners -- before they head on foot into the high mountains.

"We have pulled out 10 bodies and there are some more lying buried below the debris," Tashi Chopehl, the local sub-divisional magistrate, told AFP.

"Many injured have been airlifted and sent to the hospital in Gangtok," he said, adding the challenge was now to contact even more remote communities near the border with Nepal.

With annual monsoon rains still to finish, the tourist season in Sikkim was due to begin in the coming weeks and only a few overseas visitors were thought to have been caught up in the earthquake.

Army helicopters have started to deliver emergency food supplies and grain to villages that may remain cut off for weeks until overland links are slowly restored.

"We are blasting rocks to clear the road but this entire process will take at least two more weeks," said an army officer on the scene who declined to be named.

As well as being blocked by numerous landslides, many roads were buckled and cracked as the eastern Himalayas shook violently in the quake.

"We are scared to enter our house. It has deep cracks and the walls have tilted," said Sayema Theng, 25, a mother of three.

At night, Theng's family sleep in a community centre and in the day they sit outside their house surrounded by rocks and debris.

"The sight of rocks falling was so scary. We didn't know where to run," she said.

The overall death toll from the quake may still rise with rescue efforts at an early stage in eastern Nepal, where difficult terrain and poor infrastructure has hampered access.

Related Links
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Himalayan quake toll crosses 100
Mangan, India (AFP) Sept 21, 2011
The death toll from the weekend earthquake in the Himalayas crossed 100 Wednesday as rescue workers struggled to reach remote villages and helicopters airlifted the injured and stranded. Sunday's 6.9-magnitude quake struck the border of India's northeastern state of Sikkim and Nepal, bringing destruction to towns and villages on both sides as well as in southern Tibet and the tiny kingdom of ... read more

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