The Sikkim earthquake measuring 6.9 on the Richter scale on Sunday claimed two lives in the Darjeeling district of West Bengal along with 2 in Sikkim, 2 in Bihar and 5 in Nepal.
With cell phone and landline services coming to a standstill in the entire Hills and adjoining areas, communication became a next to impossible task. People spent hours trying frantically to contact their near and dear ones. The Hills were plunged into darkness with electricity being cut off.
Saumitra Mohan, District Magistrate, Darjeeling talking to HT stated " There are reports of one Pushpa Agarwal losing her life in Kalimpong with debris falling on her from a building under construction. There are reports of many areas having sunk, roads and walls having caved in and cracks in buildings. We are trying to access the situation."
Unconfirmed reports stated that one Arjun Bishwakarma had lost his life from a rock having crashed upon him in Doodhey under the Kurseong sub division. There were reports of people suffering minor injuries mostly caused by stampedes during the earthquake (trying to rush out of the buildings.) In many buildings in the town glass panes were shattered, crockery tumbled out from the kitchen shelves. People preferred to remain outdoors, the fear of aftershocks emerging more prominent that the constant rains.
"In all my life I have never witnessed such fear. I had run out of my house but could not find an empty space nearby where I would be safe"stated Pema, resident of one of high rises in town.
With unplanned urbanization and with the mushrooming of high rises in the Hills, the day's earthquake was just an indication of the destruction that could be caused in case of such calamities in near future.
Darjeeling has a long seismic history and lies in the 4th Seismic zone. Major (Retd.) KPMalla, Former Secretary of the Red Cross Society, Darjeeling having survived one of the worst earthquakes of this region, as a primary school student, reminisced that on the 14th January 1934 there was a heavy earthquake measuring around 7 on the Richter scale
"Ï was a student at the Selimbong Primary School. The school collapsed. It felt as if the ground below my feet had turned into liquid and was sinking. There was utter chaos as people saw death staring at their faces"stated Malla. The earthquake had left around 100 people dead and many injured with the large constructions like the Governor House and the Burdwan Maharaja's palace damaged.
However during that time there were no high rises, most of the houses were single storied and wooden construction with no electricity. The population was also very thin. The next major earthquake was in 1988. Though no loss of life was reported there was large-scale damage to constructions.
"Now an earthquake of around 7 is enough to wipe us all out. There is no open space in Darjeeling town with huge constructions and narrow roads. We don't even have the infrastructure like mobile electrical machines to remove the debris after an earthquake or other safety measures to save us. Even heavy machinery cannot be brought in through the narrow mountain road"said Malla.
The last earthquake that the Darjeeling Hills and Sikkim had felt had occurred on June 3, 2011 measuring 4.9 on the Richter scale.
Fear loomed large. "There are many patients who have left the Darjeeling Sadar Hospital out of fear"stated Dr. S Bhowmik, Chief Medical Officer of Health (CMOH), Darjeeling.
Electricity was restored to different parts of the Hills at around 10.20 pm with cell phone and landline services still remaining largely elusive.