The day we were buried alive

On April 25, 2015, a 7.8 magnitude earthquake rocked Nepal, killing over 8800 people and injuring 21,000 more. Victorian teenagers Camille and Grace were caught in the resulting avalanche. Camille recalls their horrific ordeal

Camille Thomas, 19, Apollo Bay, Vic

Opening the rickety door, I shivered in the crisp morning air. Surrounded by snow-capped mountains and an endless blue sky, I’d never been anywhere so beautiful.

I was in the Langtang National Park near the Himalayas in Nepal. Along with my bestie Grace, 19, I’d been on the trip of a lifetime trekking the Langtang Trail. Grace and I had been friends since high school and loved adventure.

We’d stayed the night in a traditional village of wooden tea houses. Our host, a man named Pema, ran the small home-stay with his family.

For the past 13 years, Nepal had held a special place in my heart. In 2003 my uncle Paul, 42, died in the Himalayan mountains after suffering a heart attack during a blizzard.

A Nepalese Sherpa named Tika risked his life to bring Paul’s body down and, ever since, Tika had been like family to us. Each year he visited Australia to see my mum Cate, 50, dad Kris, 52, brother, Dion, 22, and me.

When Grace and I arrived in Kathmandu three weeks earlier, we’d stayed with Tika and his family. He’d helped us explore the colourful city before we went on our trek.

Grace, me and Tika’s daughter Doma.

On that particular morning in Langtang, I’d nipped out to a little shop across the road. Suddenly I felt the ground swaying beneath my feet. Trying to keep myself steady, I couldn’t understand what was happening.

‘There’s an earthquake,’ shouted Pema, who motioned for me to come and stand in the doorway – where it was safe.

As I ran towards him, I could barely stay upright.

I was relieved to see Grace was there too. It was so surreal and felt like the ground was coming up and down in waves.

Then in the distance we heard a strange rumbling noise.

‘Run!’ shouted Pema, grabbing our hands. As we sprinted away, I was separated from them. Then the world went white…

Coming round a while later, I realised I was buried in debris and snow. My head was pounding and my lower back was agony. Glimpsing a bright orange light through the snow, I began digging my way out.

Thankfully I managed to find daylight. Looking around, I saw the village shattered to pieces. We’d been hit by an avalanche. When I tried to stand up, I felt woozy and had to lay back down. I must have been hit on the head by debris.

A few metres away I was relieved to see Pema and Grace pulling themselves out of the rubble.

‘My back really hurts,’ I cried out.

They were with a Frenchman, so the three of them covered me in clothes and blankets while they figured out what to do. Pema stayed to look for his family, while Grace, the man and I packed some supplies and went in search of help.

Although I was in agony, I knew I had to muster all my strength to stand up.

Walking through the snow, I was horrified by what I saw. Dead bodies lay everywhere. I’ve never felt so helpless.

Then we saw a helicopter flying overhead. Were they coming to save us?

Grace jumped up and down to attract attention but it flew out of view. Convinced they’d come back, Grace and I decided to wait, while the Frenchman carried on.

As the two of us sat in the snow, we prayed we’d make it home. But after a few hours, we were still alone.

‘Let’s carry on,’ said Grace. We were both freezing and my backache was worse. Luckily we were wearing thermals and down jackets, but we’d both lost our thongs and were now barefoot.

Shivering, we followed the footsteps in the snow.

Aftershocks shook the ground every few minutes and I was terrified there would be another big quake.

But Grace was determined to keep going. She told me how Pema had used his body to shield her from the full force. His kindness was astounding.

Just as night was about to fall, we saw a large army tent in the distance. When I realised we were safe, I sank to the ground as Nepalese soldiers came to help me. The soldiers bandaged our feet, which had turned black.

After a night in the tent, we were airlifted to hospital. I knew my family would be worried sick. I especially felt for Mum, who’d lost her brother. But the hospital was chaotic and we had no way of calling home.

An X-ray showed I’d fractured a vertebrae in my back and the bump on my head had caused hearing loss in my right ear. Grace and I also had frostbite on our feet.

Thankfully we came across an Australian journalist who contacted Mum. She got in touch with Tika, who came and took us back to his home. After five days, we finally got a flight to Thailand. Seeing Mum at Bangkok Airport I burst into tears.

Back home, I couldn’t help but think about everyone in Nepal. Was Pema okay?

Finally making contact with him, we heard the devastating news that he’d lost all his family in the avalanche. My heart broke for him.

Over time my injuries healed but that day still haunts me. Speaking to Tika and Pema regularly, we learnt that Nepal was still struggling in the aftermath.

To help, we did fundraising to send money over. Sadly, a few months ago we heard Pema had passed away too. He never got over losing his family. I hope he knew how grateful Grace and I were that he saved our lives.

Pema saved us but lost his whole family.

While our experience was traumatic, it hasn’t stopped me from wanting to see the world. I regularly go to Indonesia to see my boyfriend Joko, 23, and Grace and I went to Cambodia together last year.

I’d love to return to Nepal one day. It’s an incredible place full of welcoming people. I just hope it rises from the rubble like we did.

To make a donation to help the people of Nepal, please visit Tika’s Nepal Community Fund

Originally published in that’s life! Issue 15 – April 14, 2016

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