Hundreds of people were feared killed in Nepal Saturday after a massive 7.9 magnitude earthquake ripped through large parts of the country, toppling office blocks and towers in the panic-stricken capital Kathmandu.
Officials said that at least 114 people are known to have died in Nepal but that the toll could be many times higher, while casualties were also reported in neighbouring India and Bangladesh.
There were also reports of an avalanche at Mount Everest’s base camp in Nepal where scores of mountaineers have gathered at the start of the annual climbing season.
“In Kathmandu 71 have been reported dead so far,” home ministry spokesman Laxmi Prasad Dhakal told AFP as the scale of the disaster began to emerge. Another 43 had been reported dead in the nearby Bhaktapur district, he added.
At least a dozen bodies were taken away from the ruins of Kathmandu’s landmark Dharahara tower, according to an AFP photographer who saw similar scenes of multiple casualties in other parts of the city.
While contact with Nepal was sporadic, a senior Nepalese diplomat warned that the final toll could run into many hundreds.
“We have received reports that there is a big loss of property and life in Nepal,” Krishna Prasad Dhakal, the deputy chief of mission at Nepal’s Embassy in New Delhi, told AFP.
“Possibly hundreds of people have died in various parts of the country, particularly in Kathmandu and Pokhara.”
At least three people were known to have died in northern India while buildings in the capital New Delhi had to be evacuated.
The United States Geological Survey and India’s meteorogical service said the shallow quake struck 81 kilometres (50 miles) northwest of Kathmandu at 0611 GMT, with walls crumbling and families racing outside their homes.
“The walls of houses have collapsed around me onto the road. All the families are outside in their yards huddled together,” an AFP reporter said in Kathmandu.
Another resident recounted scenes of panic and mayhem.
“Everything started shaking. Everything fell down. The walls around the main road have collapsed. The national stadium’s gates have collapsed,” Anupa Shrestha said.
Police confirmed that the damage had been extensive.
“Our focus is on rescue in the core areas of Kathmandu where the population is concentrated,” said metropolitan police spokesman Dinesh Acharya.
“Many houses and buildings have collapsed,” he told AFP.
The quake tore through the middle of highways in the capital and also caused damage to the country’s only international airport, in a potential blow to relief efforts.
The airport’s general manager, Birendra Prasad Shrestha, said it would remain closed “for safety reasons” at least until later in the afternoon.
Kari Cuelenaere, an official at the Dutch embassy, said that the impact had swept the water out of a swimming pool at a Kathmandu hotel where Dutch national was being celebrated.
“It was horrible, all of a sudden all the water came up out of the pool and drenched everyone, the children started screaming,” Cuelenaere told AFP.
“Some parts of the city fell down, there was dust rising… There were many (rescue) helicopters.
“I can still see many high-rise buildings standing, I think we were lucky,” added Cuelenaere.
Aftershock tremors could be felt more than two hours after the initial quake.
Initially measured at 7.5 magnitude, the quake was later adjusted to 7.9, with a depth of 15 kilometres, the USGS said. It hit 68 kilometres east of the tourist town of Pokhara.
– Tremors felt across region –
Witnesses and media reports said the tremors lasted between 30 seconds and two minutes and were felt across the across the border in India, including in the capital New Delhi.
“We are in the process of finding more information and are working to reach out to those affected, both at home and in Nepal,” Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said in a tweet.
The AFP office in Delhi was evacuated twice following the quake.
Laxman Singh Rathore, director-general of the Indian Meteorological Department, told reporters that the impact had been felt across large areas of the country.
“The intensity was felt in entire north India. More intense shocks were felt in eastern UP (Uttar Pradesh) and Bihar, equally strong in sub-Himalayan West Bengal, Sikkim,” he said.
Rathore said that a second tremor of 6.6 magnitude had been recorded around 20 minutes later and centred around the same region.
“Since it is a big earthquake, there are aftershocks and people should stay cautious,” he said.
“The damage potential of any earthquake above seven magnitude is high. The duration of the earthquake tremors was different at different places. It was around 50-55 seconds long in Delhi.”
The earthquake was also felt across large areas of Bangladesh, triggering panic in the capital Dhaka as people rushed out onto the streets.
In the garment manufacturing hub of Savar, on the outskirts of Dhaka, at least 50 workers were injured after the quake set off a stampede in a garment factory, according to the private Jamuna television.
A 6.9-magnitude quake hit northeastern India in 2011, rocking neighbouring Nepal and killing 110 people.