Family mourning 18 members lost in single house collapse
Relatives gathered for weeklong prayer session buried in rubble
KATHMANDU, Nepal — Flanked by funeral pyres flickering in the darkness, Shankar Pradhan stood barefoot on the edge of Kathmandu’s sacred Bagmati River, where the dead pulled daily from the city’s ruins have been brought non-stop since a massive earthquake shook this impoverished mountain nation.
He doused his daughter’s feet and lips in holy water three times. He knelt down and kissed the orange shroud she was wrapped in. And then helped by grieving relatives, he spread red ochre and marigolds over the corpse, encased it in a tomb of dry wood and set it ablaze.
The ancient Hindu cremation rite is meant to purify souls for the afterlife, and this was far from the only one for Pradhan, 49, and his extended family. When the quake crumpled his brother’s four-storey house into a cloud of dust Saturday, it left them with a total of 18 souls to prepare.
“I don’t know why this happened. But I don’t blame anyone. I don’t blame the government; I don’t blame the gods,” he said, struggling to fight back tears. “You can’t escape the rules of this life. None of us escape the fact that one day you’ll have to leave it.”
Pradhan’s 21-year-old daughter was one of more than 5,000 people who perished in the worst tremor this country has seen in more than 80 years. Even in a nation where death and destruction have touched a vast area, the grief visited upon Pradhan’s family is overwhelming.
About 30 of Pradhan’s relatives had gathered in his brother’s house on Saturday for a weeklong traditional Hindu prayer session meant to beget peace and safety.
Prayers were supposed to begin exactly at noon, said Krishna Lal Shrestha, who was decorating a four-foot marble temple with flowers inside the house as the time approached.
At 11:56 a.m., the house began shaking violently.
“People were screaming, ‘Run! Run!’” Shrestha said. He was thrown to the ground and tried to crawl farther inside. Instead, by an incredible stroke of luck, he was hurled through a door outside. When he crawled away and turned back, he watched in terror as the building’s four floors collapsed one by one, crushing to death almost everyone inside.
About a dozen people had managed to flee in time. Two children who were on the roofs somehow slid down the rubble, bruised but alive. The death toll could have been even worse if the quake had struck later, when more than 100 additional family members were expected.
Pradhan was working at his small shop in another part of Kathmandu and rushed home to find his distraught wife and four other children outside. He knew his fifth child was at his brother’s; phone lines were so congested he could not get through, but because most of the capital still stood he had felt there was a good chance she was OK.
On Sunday morning, Pradhan trekked one hour on foot to his brother’s house and found instead an unrecognizable mountain of rubble. Family members were clawing with bare hands through the debris. His daughter, he knew, was buried somewhere inside.
Nepalese troops and Indian emergency rescue teams showed up with jackhammers and a bulldozer that day. They recovered three bloodied corpses, but it was not until Monday that they found Pradhan’s daughter along with three others.
Pradhan said that in Nepal, “there is a saying that if you die while in prayer, you will go straight to the gods.” But that belief seemed to give little solace.