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ABQ woman recalls Nepal quake terror

Copyright © 2015 Albuquerque Journal

Sachi Watase of Albuquerque was leaning against an old school building in Nepal last month when the earth shook and tossed her to the ground.

The shaking – about 20 seconds altogether – caused the school beside her to collapse.

And when the earthquake stopped, the screaming began. Women called out for their children. Men emerged from other parts of the village, covered in blood and dust.

Watase and her fellow college students – participating in a study-abroad program – survived without serious injury and were later evacuated by helicopter.

But the April 25 earthquake killed about 8,150 others.

Now, Watase, an Albuquerque resident and student at Pitzer College in California, is urging New Mexicans to help the people of Nepal, especially those in small villages who won’t receive the aid headed to Kathmandu.

“It’s a complete nightmare,” Watase said, “and the people of Nepal are living this every day. It’s not over. It’s really heartbreaking that people are experiencing this emotional and physical horror.”

Watase, 19, grew up in Albuquerque and attended Amy Biehl High School for two years before heading to a boarding school in Switzerland.

She’s now a math major at Pitzer College in Southern California.

Watase and about a dozen other students, mostly from Pitzer, spent the spring semester this year studying Nepalese language, culture and history in the Kathmandu Valley.

But they were in a more-remote region when the quake struck on a Saturday: the village of Simigaaun, which is a two-hours’ hike from the nearest road, high in the mountains.

‘It wouldn’t stop’

There was to be an inauguration ceremony that day for a new school building, constructed with help from foreign donations.

WATASE: "It's a complete nightmare"

WATASE: “It’s a complete nightmare”

The shaking began as Watase leaned against the old school, roughly 30 feet from the new one.

“At first, I didn’t think it was anything,” she said. “Then, it wouldn’t stop. I got thrown off my feet and fell on the ground.”

Both school buildings collapsed, but there was no one inside.

“That was really, really lucky,” Watase said. “They wouldn’t have been able to get out. It was just too fast. It collapsed within seconds.”

The earthquake, she said, “was so violent there was no way we could have even stood up. It was throwing us back and forth and the ground was splitting.”

The students stayed to help the villagers pull things from the rubble and provide other support. But Watase, in turn, remembers the kindness of the villagers, who built a shelter of tarps and bamboo for their American visitors and cooked for them.

A child teaches Sachi Watase how to weave floor mats in Tangting, Nepal, before the earthquake.

A child teaches Sachi Watase how to weave floor mats in Tangting, Nepal, before the earthquake.

Simigaaun is a Sherpa and Tamang village with about 100 houses made out of rocks, mud and wood. The quake leveled many homes and damaged others beyond repair. Every home will have to be rebuilt.

There were no deaths, though some villagers suffered head-wounds from falling rocks and other injuries, Watase said.

An aftershock about 25 hours later convinced program leaders that it was not safe and that they should look for a way to leave.

Hillsides collapsed, sweeping entire villages away, Watase said. At one point, an enormous dust cloud forced everyone to close their eyes and cover their mouths for half an hour.

“About every 10 minutes or so, you’d hear a rock slide,” Watase said. “We never knew if it was going to hit our village.”

One of the local teachers had a husband in the Nepalese military, and he helped get a military helicopter to rescue the students and teachers.

But at one point in the journey, the students had to be separated from the Nepalese teachers and program staff: Only foreigners or the injured were allowed on the army helicopter.

“That was incredibly heartbreaking,” Watase said.

They were later able to meet again, however, and everyone made it out safely.

Donations needed

Watase said she hopes New Mexicans will keep the people of Nepal in their thoughts. She encourages donations to organizations that help people outside the capital, Kathmandu, because the small villages are less likely to receive aid.

Supporters have set up a website that allows donations to the people of Simigaaun and the study-abroad program staffers and families who worked with the college students.

Watase’s host family now lives in a tent.

“I think it is important for people to know that clean water, food and shelter are dangerously scarce,” Watase said. “The people who did survive the earthquake are now fighting to make it through each day.”