Mom survives 36 hours in Nepal quake rubble

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Tanka Maya Sitoula (right) spent 36 hours trapped in a collapsed building before she was rescued.

KATHMANDU, Nepal — Kathmandu is a city with few good stories right now, but Tanka Maya Sitoula has one of them.

The 40-year-old mother-of-four was at home when Saturday’s deadly 7.8-magnitude earthquake struck, bringing the 5-story building down around her ground floor apartment.

In the wake of the disaster, which has left at least 4,500 people dead across Nepal, Sitoula endured 36 long hours trapped in a room on the ground floor, before she was freed by an Indian rescue team.

Remarkably, she escaped without injury, apparently protected by a beam.

Sitoula, who talked to CNN through an interpreter, says she remained confident she would survive throughout her ordeal amid the rubble.

“I heard people making noise outside so I thought I would be rescued,” she said, as she and her family sheltered in the grounds of a nearby school. “I was confident that everybody was there outside and that I would be rescued.”

What did she do for 36 hours? “I was just lying down,” she says. “There was no room to move here and there.”

Sitoula’s husband Mahendra, a butcher, said he called out for help for hours after the quake, as he could hear her shouting in the rubble of the collapsed building.

“I was totally confident that she was there,” he said. “I never stopped calling her. And also from down below she was making sounds and I could hear her.”

It took 18 hours before the necessary help arrived, he said. And it took another 18 hours to free her.

“I was asking people for help. Traffic police, whoever I could find. What happened was there were no tools to cut through the metal debris.”

In this story

  • Tanka Maya Sitoula was at home in Kathmandu, Nepal, when deadly quake struck
  • She was trapped inside the ruins of her wrecked home for 36 hours

Eventually, a rescue team from India had the equipment required, he said.

Throughout the ordeal, he never gave up hope, he says: “I was confident that my wife was safe and sound.”

He was only concerned about how she would fare during the attempt to free her.

Inspector Karam Singh from India’s National Disaster Management Authority was supervising search and rescue efforts at the Sitoulas’ former home Tuesday — a bright pink building, pancaked into two levels, with an entire wall sheared off to reveal its purple interior.

He described the rescue efforts as physically draining work — “cutting, pushing and pulling” — but extremely rewarding in the case of Sitoula.

“She was happy, so so happy. She wasn’t stopping praising us,” he said. “We said it’s good to have a [survivor].”

Singh said workers had recovered one body from the building, adding that he believed eight to 10 others remained trapped inside.

But as a French team of sniffer dogs completed a sweep of the ruins with no promising signs, following a search with a sensor earlier which also showed no signs of life, Singh said there was “no chance” of finding any survivors.

As a digger worked to clear the rubble of her former home, Sitoula agreed: two days after her rescue, she says it is highly unlikely there are others as lucky as her, still surviving beneath the rubble.

The prognosis is equally dire in Kathmandu’s Gangabhu neighborhood, where search teams are focusing their efforts on a cluster of collapsed six-story guesthouses.

A handler from a Japanese search dog team climbs down the wreckage with a stern expression. “I’m sorry. It didn’t work out,” he tells the Nepalese police officers involved in the search and recovery effort.

Officer Tejush Swarnakar, with the Nepalese armed police, says officials believe about 50 people may be trapped in the rubble. Four bodies have been recovered — but on Monday, there was a rare survival story.

Members of GEA, a Turkish volunteer search and rescue team, pulled 21-year-old John Keisi from the debris after a 13-hour rescue effort.

Swarnakar’s colleagues were also diverted into action nearby, when dozens of protesters block a busy thoroughfare, chanting: “Down with the government.”

There are complaints, specifically, that the government is not doing enough to prevent rising transport prices in the wake of the earthquake.

A bus window is smashed and there are brief scuffles as police move in to clear the crowd using shields and long batons.

A short walk away, along the banks of the Bishnumati River, residents perch precariously on the slanted roof of a collapsed building in an attempt to salvage what they can. Next door, a striking sight: a rope of knotted sheets hangs from a third-floor window.

Neighbor Aakash Karki, 19, says that seven people escaped using the rope.

As the sun starts to set, crowds gather in Kathmandu’s Sitapali neighborhood to watch the work of a large group of rescue and recovery teams.

This is where members of GEA made the first of their two rescues in Nepal at 3 a.m. Sunday, pulling Bikram Chepang, 22, from the debris of 11 collapsed buildings.

Now, back at the site, there are faint hopes that a third, and remarkable, rescue may on the cards. A search dogs scouring the wreckage has given an indication that it may have detected life.

The volunteers continue their search, but conclude the dog was mistaken. They don’t believe there’s anyone alive inside.

 

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