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Trembling Kathmandu -- an on-the-ground view

Piles of rubble are all that is left of buildings around Durbar Square. Kathmandu is still reeling from the impact of the April 25 earthquake. (Photo by Tom Vater)

KATHMANDU -- A massive earthquake hit Nepal around midday on Saturday.

     The first quake was severe, shaking Kathmandu, the capital, to the core and destroying some of the most historic parts of the old city. At a packed convention of tattoo artists at the Yak and Yeti, a luxury hotel in central Kathmandu, the quake triggered a stampede from the ballroom and left the hotel badly damaged with cracks in the facade.

     In the Thamel area near historic Durbar Square, large crowds of dazed looking people milled around in the streets. Broken telephone and electricity masts littered the main roads, one had crushed a Maruti taxi as it fell.

     The historical center of Kathmandu, Durbar Square is devastated. The main temples have virtually collapsed. In the hours after the first big quake, people were climbing over piles of rubble. There was only one ambulance, and no authorities in sight except a few soldiers in front of a collapsed building. Helicopters were cruising low above the capital. The feeling of crisis and danger continued with several aftershocks through the afternoon.

     Clouds of dust hung over the city prompting many people to don face masks. All shops in the city center were shuttered and restaurants closed. There was no electricity, and as night fell, the absence of street lighting reinforced the gloom.

    Several people from the Bhaktapur district where many old buildings had collapsed fled into the town center. One man told me that his family home had been destroyed, and that his neighbor had lost his entire family. His own sister had managed to save her one-month old baby from the rubble of her house. Bhaktapur, also a UNESCO World Heritage site, has lost many of its old and fragile buildings.

     On Mount Everest, visible from planes landing at Kathmandu airport. the quake triggered an avalanche which was estimated to have killed 29 to 30 climbers.

     The atmosphere on Saturday night in the capital was eerie, with birds tweeting and dogs barking in the streets in darkness. The entire population of the city was bracing for a night outside. People walked around looking lost. Some were taking selfies in front of their ruined cityscape. There were further aftershocks and many people were heading to sleep in the gardens of the Royal Palace. Hotel owners advised their guests to sleep outside.

     There was no traffic on the streets. Distressed tourists wandered around the urban center, unsure whether to head for the airport -- which reopened late afternoon to allow a few flights in and out.

     Telecommunications were also damaged. Local phones were only working sporadically, with mobile phones cut most of the time.

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