11:56 a.m., Saturday, April 25, 2015. Kathmandu. The moment he got up from in front of his laptop, it started. Everything rattled and shook, like he was sitting in a plane going through turbulence. There was so much noise. Beneath the clattering of the doors and windows and furniture, there was also something deeper, a [...]

The Sunday Times Sri Lanka

“Everything rattled and shook, I knew I had to get out”

Tomorrow marks one month since a deadly earthquake struck Nepal. Here conservationist Dr. Eric Wikramanayake remembers his ordeal

11:56 a.m., Saturday, April 25, 2015. Kathmandu.

The moment he got up from in front of his laptop, it started. Everything rattled and shook, like he was sitting in a plane going through turbulence. There was so much noise. Beneath the clattering of the doors and windows and furniture, there was also something deeper, a weird pervading sound, between a deep rumble and an unfamiliar low-pitched roar.

On the flight home: Inside the SLAF C-130

He knew what it was, and he knew he had to get out.

In just a thin T-shirt and shorts, he ran out to the corridor and down the flight of stairs that was just across the hall from his hotel room. The floor beneath him was moving and it took effort to maintain his balance so he grabbed the railing tight as he lunged down the staircase.
He ran all the way, down four flights of stairs, through the lobby, and out onto the parking lot. He stopped to catch his breath and take in his surroundings. Hotel staff and other guests were already gathering outside.

The earth was still shaking.

Dr. Eric Wikramanayake is a Sri Lankan conservation scientist with the World Wildlife Fund who has been working in Nepal for over 15 years. He is currently helping large mammal populations including rhino, elephant and tiger, survive humanity and climate change. In the first week of April, he went back to his “second home”, Kathmandu, to consolidate a proposal he and his colleagues were working on. They were in the second stage of strategic planning for Chitwan National Park when the 7.8 magnitude quake struck Gokhar leaving over 8,000 dead and nearly 20,000 injured.

Fifteen to 30 minutes after the first tremors, just as people were starting to calm down, the first aftershock hit. Eric watched as the earth moved in an unfamiliar undulation, just in front of him. It felt like being on a boat in mildly choppy water, except he was on “solid” ground.

Back at home in Ratmalana, Eric’s wife Hishani had a call from a friend around 12.30 p.m. that there had been a massive earthquake in Nepal, close to Kathmandu. She immediately switched the TV on and called Eric on Viber. No response. She sent him a few frantic text messages also. After decades of marriage, she was almost used to his close encounters with nature at her fiercest, so despite the worry, she started the motions. First, she called their travel agent and booked Eric a seat on the first available flight out of Kathmandu, headed for Katunayake. Then, she called Eric’s brother and sister-in-law who lived just down the road. A little while later, she also activated roaming on his Sri Lanka number.

She called the WWF office in Kathmandu. All they could tell her was that a number of homes in the area where Eric was staying were damaged, but they had no information about him or the hotel he was staying at. They couldn’t send anyone over to check either as the road conditions were too bad for travelling.

At Hotel Tibet, Lazimpat, Eric watched people walk around the parking lot helping and comforting each other. Somebody with an extra raincoat lent him one to put on over his T-shirt. The scientist wasn’t really worried or afraid, but couldn’t believe he had forgotten his cellphone on his way out of the room. He wanted to text home.

Eric Wikramanayake

Around 2 p.m. he borrowed a phone from a local and texted Hishani, informing her that there had been a “mild” earthquake but he was ok and she shouldn’t worry.

Eric had no idea what was going on in the older parts of Kathmandu – that entire villages had been reduced to dust and hundreds and hundreds of dead and injured people were being dug out of the rubble. But his family in Ratmalana knew better. They sat around the TV carefully scrutinizing the footage flashing across the screen hoping to maybe catch a glimpse of him, calling everyone they could think of who might be able to help find him and get in touch.

But of course, phone lines in Nepal were getting jammed. Hishani kept texting and calling Eric, but nothing worked. She knew she was being irrational, she knew he would call when he was able, she knew he was probably fine, but she was still very scared. Finally, when somebody answered, it was a Nepalese who didn’t know Eric and wasn’t able to communicate much in English. Hishani couldn’t understand why someone else answered Eric’s cellphone. She fought down the panic rising in her throat, simply because she didn’t want to scare their 17-year-old daughter.

The tremors of the aftershocks kept coming for hours, even up to 4.30 p.m. local time. Finally around 5 p.m. when there was a sufficient lull, Eric went up to collect essentials from his room. His phone had been bombarded with text messages and calls. Call roaming had also been activated on his Sri Lanka SIM so he rang his wife.

Eric was supposed to be heading back to Sri Lanka on May 2, but thanks to his wife’s quick thinking he now had a seat booked on a Thai Airways flight heading to Bangkok and then Sri Lanka in the evening of Sunday, April 26. Less than 24 hours to go.

A little later in the evening on Saturday, there was another text from Hishani saying a Sri Lankan Air Force flight was heading for Kathmandu with rescue teams and resources. The flight was scheduled to arrive at the Kathmandu airport by 11 a.m. local time on Sunday and depart for Sri Lanka by 2 p.m. Evacuees were advised to get to the Kathmandu airport before 7.30 a.m. Less than 12 hours to go.

A number of people were leaving the hotel on Sunday morning, and Eric was able to share a taxi headed for the airport.

Eric had been instructed to check in at the VIP departure lounge and to find the other Sri Lankans. He knew there were more than 20 people already waiting for the same flight, but was surprised to find that the majority of these was a group of young girls on a sports tour in Nepal. The girls of the national under-14 football team of Sri Lanka were supposed to be playing their first game of the Asian Football Confederation Regional Championship in Kathmandu that morning. Nature had served them a completely different ballgame. Eric noted how composed they were despite being mere children away from home faced with a previously unexperienced level of natural disaster and destruction.

The Sri Lanka Air Force had no check-in system in place at the Kathmandu airport. These were unusual circumstances. Passengers would have to lug their bags through security and load them onto the aircraft themselves.

12:54 p.m., Sunday, April 26, 2015.

Just as they were approaching the gate, it struck again – the most powerful aftershock since the quake– 6.7 magnitude on the Richter scale.
Low ceiling, narrow corridors and lots of people rushing to get out, and Eric didn’t know which way he should be going. They managed to get out on to the tarmac. The shaking stopped. They started walking towards the aircraft. Less than an hour to go.

After they had got in and gone through pre-flight procedure, the captain announced that there was an oil leak which had to be checked before they could take off. Everybody was offloaded and while some walked back into the airport Eric decided to stay outside, close to the aircraft, with some others. He kept Hishani updated, texting regularly and occasionally calling her. She had done everything she could from her end, and now it was a matter of waiting. The worrying had put her in bed, shivering with a high temperature.

6:30 p.m. at Tribhuvan International Airport, Kathmandu, more than four hours after their intended departure time, the aircraft was still under repair. Crew informed passengers that the problem could not be solved as easily as they had hoped, and that it was necessary to wait for a Pakistani Air Force flight coming in later that evening to get their hands on a replacement for a damaged part. Eric sat on the tarmac watching in frustration as a Thai Airways flight took off for Bangkok. He could have been on his way home.

The Pakistani Air Force flight was delayed. More Sri Lankans heading back to Katunayake joined the first 27 on Monday. The number waiting to go home was now 42.

The Sri Lanka Air Force C-130 was finally fixed and ready for take-off by Tuesday morning. Dr. Eric Wikramanayake and the hundreds of others who left Kathmandu, and those who chose to stay behind, were those blessed with the hope of a home elsewhere. On his way back to Lanka, he thought of his Nepali friends, those who had no option but to suffer the damage and struggle through rebuilding a city that had literally fallen to the ground.

Looking back, a month and over 250 aftershocks and severe damage later, the love Eric has for Nepal, its environment, its people and its culture, has not changed. He only waits to be called back to duty, to help not only conserve, but now also rebuild the beautiful nation.

Advertising Rates

Please contact the advertising office on 011 - 2479521 for the advertising rates.