National Catholic Register


Miracles of Survival

BY Brian McGuire

Feb. 11-17, 2001 Issue | Posted 2/11/01 at 2:00 PM


BHUJ, India––Kaushik Patel, who narrowly escaped death when his school collapsed in India's massive earthquake, now finds it difficult to sleep.

Each day he relives the horror of being trapped for hours inside a cavity following the Jan. 26 earthquake that devastated the western state of Gujarat, reported UCA News, an Asian church news agency based in Thailand.

“It was a miracle that I was saved,” the 16-year-old Patel said. “How can I face those who did not have that privilege?”

Patel was the last of seven survivors dug from the ruins of his former school. Forty bodies were later found at the site.

Most reasonable estimates suggest that a healthy person can be expected to survive without food and water for, at most, 100 hours.

And yet, one by one, survivors like Patel continued to surface from what remains of the homes, schools and businesses that were leveled by the quake, which Indian officials are calling the worst to hit the Indian subcontinent in more than 50 years.

Jyotsnabhen Gandhi, a 55-year-old woman from the hard-hit city of Ahmedabad, was pulled alive from her apartment building some 120 hours after the quake, the BBC reported.

Indian officials described Gandhi's survival as “miraculous.” Doctors told the BBC that “in many cases faith is helping keep [people] alive.”

Another survivor, 49-year-old Ramesh Soni, alerted bulldozer crews that he was trapped in a collapsed building just moments before they ploughed it through.

“For five days I lay with slabs on both sides. I had no water, nothing to eat or drink. I was drinking in my God's name,” Soni told the BBC's Peter Popham.

The stunning survival stories of Patel, Soni and Ghandi provided an inspiring storyline for reporters feeding news of the earthquake's fallout to Western media outlets. They also served as a momentary distraction to the tragedy of the earthquake, which may have killed as many as 100,000 people, and has left 800,000 thousand homeless people crowding the urban centers of Gujarat.

New Ghost Towns

It was the homeless that relief workers focused on in the days following the quake. Most had lost their homes. Others feared returning to the ones that still stood.

“In each and every village, the picture is the same –– that of a ghost area: only dead bodies and some people keeping watch over them, since they cannot move the debris with their bare hands,” Bishop Gregory Karotemprel of Rajkot told UCA News.

Bishop Karotemprel, whose diocese was the hardest hit in Gujarat, told an ENI news service reporter he believed that 60,000 had perished in his diocese alone, with 100,000 deaths possible altogether. Indian Defense Minister George Fernandes had made a similar estimate a day earlier.

Other estimates have placed the death toll lower, at around 20,000.

“It's one of those things people are not going to recover from for a very long time. I'd say they are set back a generation,” said Will Lynch from his home in Delhi.

Lynch, who is coordinating Catholic Relief Services’ aid efforts in Gujarat, described the city nearest the quake's epicenter, Bhuj, as being “flattened.”

“It's all concrete construction,” Lynch told the Register, referring to the 80 apartment towers that collapsed there.

Original aerial assessments put the number of collapsed towers at 30.

What officials couldn't see, Lynch said, was that the earth had swallowed up the first two or three floors of some 50 additional towers.

Observers reported that much of the destruction in Gujarat resulted from poorly built apartment towers that housed middle-class Indians. The poor, who mostly live in shanties, were the least affected.

But as Lynch pointed out, most of the poor that remain depended on the middle class for their work.

“This is a complex situation,” he said.

As Lynch described his relief work to the Register, news reports from Bhuj indicated that food aid was not reaching survivors.

Lynch explained that a relief effort of this size takes several days to coordinate.

“You start getting these reports of some places being triple-served and other places not being served. It's typical in any sort of situation like this that it's going to take a little while to get something steady in place. You have to plan it out,” the CRS coordinator said. “There becomes an illusion of a lack of coordination.”

A History of Disaster

The people of Gujarat were still reeling from a 1998 cyclone that destroyed much of the area's infrastructure when the massive earthquake, which measured 7.9 on the Richter scale, hit the Indian state. What's more, a severe, two-year drought had followed the cyclone, limiting food supplies in an already poor region.

Relief agencies that had moved in to serve those suffering from the drought immediately shifted focus to help those left homeless by the quake.

Catholic Relief Services already had 500 tons of food in the Bhuj area. Lynch said it was enough to last until supplies from Delhi arrive there –– but just enough.

“People are dissolving what they had. There is a lot of neighbor-to-neighbor help. They are running out,” he said.

A Jan. 31 report from ENI was even more grave, quoting one observer on the ground as saying that the hundreds of thousands of dollars in aid that had reached Gujarat since the quake was likely to prove insufficient, given the scale of the devastation.

Meanwhile, agencies from the U.S., Europe, and even India's bitter enemy Pakistan are rushing to get food, clothing and temporary shelter to the displaced.

Most of the aid is coming from England, which still has strong ties with India. Church aid agencies and the European Union have also promised several million dollars in assistance.

In the United States, Catholic Relief Services had processed $78,665 in credit card donations by Jan. 29, after receiving 447 phone calls from donors.

Mailed gifts were still in transit, Catholic Relief Services spokesman Joe Carney told the Register, and parish collections began the first Sunday in February. The organization sent $650,000 from its emergency fund to assist survivors.

“People are sleeping in the streets,” Carney told the Register, adding that the situation called for a long-term relief plan, one that will include a strategy for rebuilding homes.

“We've heard there is no running water, no electricity. People are just forced to sleep outside at night. Taking care of people is the main need.”

(With contributions from combined news services)