Where: Ahmedabad, Gujarat, India
February 5, 2001 : It was 8.45 am on January 26, 2001. A day when the country was celebrating Republic Day. Like their counterparts across India, the people of Ahmedabad, in the western state of Gujarat, were settling down to watch the Republic Day Parade on television. Basant Rawat was one of them.
Suddenly the earth began to shake under his feet. Basant ran out of his house. And, the sight that greeted him seemed to be straight out of an action film – Tagore apartments, a five-storeyed building, 400 yards from his house, collapsed like a pack of cards, says a report in ‘The Telegraph’. He was right in the midst of an earthquake.
Although Basant did not know it then, multi-storey buildings across several cities in Gujarat were cracking-up and crumbling in the same way. And in the process, burying the residents who lived in them under the debris, or making them homeless.
What caused the earth to shake so violently that it destroyed so many buildings standing on its surface? An earthquake is the earth’s natural means of releasing the stress that builds up on it. This happens due to the movements of the earth’s plates on the large, relatively rigid segments of the lithosphere or the solid, rocky outer part. The crust breaks when this stress is great enough. It is released as energy which moves through the earth in the form of waves, that are collectively known as an earthquake.
The earthquake that struck Gujarat was a powerful one measuring 7.9 on the Richter scale that measures the strength or magnitude of the earthquake. Its tremors were felt as far away as Kanyakumari in the south and Kashmir in the north. It is being described as the most severe in fifty years in India. The quake was felt in Pakistan too, with a few deaths being recorded in Sindh province.
So intense was the quake that it measured high at 7.9 on the Mercali intensity scale of the United States Geological Survey. The Mercali scale records the extent of the damage caused by the earthquake on a scale of 12.
That it is severe is apparent from the numbers of people who died in the quake. Although the government of Gujarat says 20,000 people have died in the quake, it is feared that the figures could go as high as 50,000 or more.
Origin of the quake in the Kutch region
The region most affected by the quake is the Bhuj district in the Kutch region. Rajkot, Jamnagar, Bhavnagar and Surat are other badly affected districts. Ahmedabad too has been affected.
In the epicentre of the quake near Bhuj in the Kutch region, sparsely-populated owing to its sandy, barren nature, the toll has gone up to 15,000. In Ahmedabad, most of the deaths have been caused by house collapse as nearly a 100 multi-storeyed buildings and high rise apartments have gone down.
The quake has caused full scale power failure and the communication lines have been cut, the roadways have caved in and railway property has been damaged. It has dealt a severe blow to the economy of Gujarat, one of India’s most industrialised states. The army has been called in for the rescue operation. The air force has brought in rescue teams and neighbours and spectators have pitched in to rescue victims from the rubble.
Bhuj: once a centre of craft is now a ‘graveyard’
The town of Bhuj is being described as a “graveyard”. Even worse affected is the adjoining Bhachau taluka, which bore witness to the deaths of tens of thousands of its people buried under the debris of fallen structures.
The saddest thing is, many of these people could have been saved had rescue arrived on time. It was over 24 hours after the earthquake that rescue work began in most places though, and it was too late for many people by then.
Not a single standing structure in Bhachau
The destruction of Bhachau is absolute, writes a report in ‘The Times of India’. There is not a single manmade structure left standing – temple, mosque, house, police station or shop – all have been razed to the ground.
The tragedy of 400 schoolchildren in Anjar
A heartbreaking incident is that of 400 school children who were taking out a Republic Day rally through the streets of Anjar town in Kutch district. The earthquake led to the walls from both sides of the road to collapse, trapping the children inside. Only a few children survived.
A second earthquake occurred in the state the next day, triggering a panic reaction from people who, either spent their second nights in the open or began a mass exodus from the regions in which they resided to safer regions.
Meanwhile rescue teams from the United Kingdom, Turkey, Germany, Russia and Switzerland have arrived in Ahmedabad and Bhuj to aid local rescue efforts. They are equipped with sniffer dogs and life-detectors. But it’s clearly an extremely difficult task with thousands of people buried under mounds of debris, most of them dead.
Miracle of life
Two year-old Aneri Kapadia who, despite being buried for 36 hours in the rubble that was the apartment complex where she lived, and having sustained serious head injuries, lived.
After six days of being trapped under rubble, 24-year-old Viren Dalal was pulled out of the rubble; he had literally passed the time looking at the hours go by in his watch.
A 40-year-old rescued by army volunteers gave birth to a boy after being trapped for more than two days and her son was christened ‘Fauji” or armyman! It is incidents like these which hasten the efforts of rescue teams.
But even as the nation watches rescuers pull body after lifeless body out of the rubble, it is becoming depressingly clear that Aneri’s survival is a miracle. And miracles only happen now and then. Hope is fading fast for the survivors who lie buried in the rubble.
The rising body count has brought to light yet another sad fact. The Indian state is ill-equipped to handle disasters of the magnitude of the Gujarat earthquake. For, earthquakes don’t normally kill people, it is faulty construction and poor crisis management policies that do.
Most deaths in an earthquake are caused by walls collapsing and crushing people. If the walls could be made to withstand the shock waves of the quake, they might not collapse.
But in India, quake-resistant buildings are nearly unheard of. And so when an earthquake occurs, buildings crumble. And people lose their lives, leading one survivor in the aftermath of the quake, to cry out in anguish, that there’s nothing between the earth and the sky, only bodies.