Seven days in the quake zone
by Patrick Fuller
Apartment buildings were cut in half exposing
the final, private moments of their residents before tragedy
On 26 January as parades to mark Republic Day celebrations were
getting under way across India, a massive earthquake struck
the north-western state of Gujarat. Bhuj in Gujarat's Kutch
district was one of the worst-hit towns. Patrick Fuller, regional
information delegate for the Federation, recorded his impressions
as one of the first international relief workers to arrive there.
The low rumble which shook my house in New Delhi was the
first indication that the week ahead was going to be one of
the most intense in my life. I turned on the television and
a news flash announced that an earthquake had struck the state
of Gujarat. Initial casualties were reported to be low. I
called Bob McKerrow, Federation head of the regional delegation
in New Delhi and we immediately began contacting colleagues
at the Indian Red Cross. As information began to filter in
from the branches in the quake zone, it became apparent by
10h30 that the potential scale of this disaster was enormous
even by Indian standards, where devastating natural disasters
occur with a tragic frequency.
The next morning Alan Bradbury, Federation regional disaster
preparedness delegate, and I took the first flight to Ahmedabad,
commercial capital of Gujarat. Upon arrival we could not help
but wonder if the reports of devastation had been exaggerated.
Buildings along the road from the airport to the Red Cross
office appeared untouched and the everyday bustle in the streets
The next few hours proved us wrong as we set about assessing
the scale of destruction in different pockets of the city.
Wherever a building had collapsed, tension was high with local
residents and police struggling to hold back the crowds of
curious onlookers. A ten-storey building appeared to have
been sliced in two. One-half had collapsed, the other half
remained standing with bisected rooms open to the sky, exposing
the final, private moments of former residents. Friends, relatives
and neighbours desperately searched for missing loved ones.
Two men rushed to the site carrying a car jack in the vain
hope that it would lift a huge concrete slab under which the
cries of a child had been heard.
Ahmedabad was in a terrible state but Alan and I knew that
the worst was yet to come. The epicentre of the quake was
over 400 kilometres away near the ancient town of Bhuj in
the district of Kutch. Almost no information had emerged from
there, but we knew that power and telecommunications were
down and the airport was closed.
From relief to recovery
The earthquake which struck India's Gujarat state on 26 January
2001 was the country's worst for half a century, leaving at
least 20,000 people dead, 166,000 injured and more than 15
million affected in one way or another.
The Indian Red Cross (IRCS), supported by the Federation,
ICRC and sister societies, was at the forefront of the relief
effort, distributing a range of much-needed emergency items,
including tents, tarpaulins and blankets; night-time temperatures
in the days following the quake hovered around zero.
At the request of the IRCS, the Federation deployed a field
assessment coordination team and seven emergency response
units focusing on health, water-sanitation, telecommunications
and logistics activities. Particularly crucial was the establishment
of a 350-bed referral hospital, which served as the main health
facility in Bhuj - a city of some 150,000 people close to
the quake's epicentre - for several weeks after the disaster.
At the peak of the emergency operation, some 150 expatriate
delegates from more than 15 Red Cross and Red Crescent societies
were assigned to the disaster zone, many of them based in
a tented compound in Bhuj where living conditions were harsh.
The Movement's response to the IRCS request for assistance,
launched at the end of January, was rapid and generous with
some CHF 30 million donated by around 40 contributors for
a four-month relief phase.
The emphasis of the operation has now switched to recovery
and rehabilitation with a major programme under way for the
next 12 to 18 months. It is focused on health, water-sanitation,
disaster preparedness and response, capacity building for
the IRCS and affected communities, any further relief needs
and reconstruction of public buildings in the health and education
Over 90 delegates and seven Red Cross emergency response
units were deployed to the most affected regions within a
week after the event.
A city in ruins
At 01h00 on Sunday morning I arrived in Bhuj. Groups of people
crouched around small fires on each street corner were the
only signs of life in the town. I found the local branch of
the Indian Red Cross where the branch secretary Dr. Morbia
and his extended family were sleeping in the backs of cars
or on mattresses in the middle of the street.
Everyone in Bhuj was too frightened to return home. Adrenaline
was pumping through my system and it was bitterly cold. No
sooner had I fallen asleep I was awoken by a violent judder
at 06h30. The neighbourhood came alive with a cacophony of
children's screams and excited chatter. They had lived through
40 seconds of horror the previous morning and were terrified
that it might happen again.
The scale of the disaster was evident everywhere. Houses
and ancient temples in the old town were reduced to rubble
and a population of some 70,000 people had vanished. Thousands
were presumed dead and even more had fled the town.
The streets of Bhuj were filled with residents sitting atop
their salvaged possessions on trucks and tractors. To add
to the chaos anxious relatives were coming in to the town
in search of missing family members.
Everyone had been traumatized by this disaster. Most had
lost friends or relatives and few had slept during the past
48 hours. I asked the state minister of health for a meeting
later in the day, he pointed to his jeep and said, "Come
and find me in my office."
The arrival of emergency relief
Hundreds of thousands of people required tents or plastic
sheeting for shelter and blankets to stay warm during the
cold nights. Medical equipment and materials were desperately
needed as efforts to care for the injured gathered pace.
Within 50 hours the first Red Cross relief supplies began
to arrive. A convoy of trucks rolled in with 30 tonnes of
blankets and plastic sheeting from the Swiss Red Cross, and
more trucks were on their way with supplies from the Indian
Red Cross's warehouse in Delhi. On Tuesday the first cargo
flights landed at Bhuj airport. The logistical hurdles were
immense. The lack of lifting gear at the airport and shortage
of trucks and volunteers meant that we were working around
the clock to offload the aircraft.
Within a week over 90 delegates and seven emergency response
units (ERU) from Red Cross societies around the world had
arrived in Bhuj. The Norwegian and Finnish Red Cross Societies
set up a field hospital and the Japanese Red Cross sent a
team of professionals and a mobile medical clinic. The German
Red Cross dispatched a water and sanitation ERU to supply
clean water to the hospital and the British Red Cross sent
in an ERU of logisticians. Daily flights were arriving in
Bhuj and at the same time convoys of trucks rolled out of
the Red Cross compound each morning, laden with blankets,
tents and tarpaulins for distribution in outlying villages.
The week had been one long emotional roller coaster with
a succession of highs and lows. Western journalists and aid
workers alike, we were all shocked by what we had seen but
our experiences were sometimes shared through moments of laughter
- perhaps an instinctive coping mechanism to counter our distress.
Flying back to Delhi I reflected on some of the remarkable
people I had met during that week. The volunteer doctors who
had been working for 72 hours with virtually no sleep. With
no water for three days they had resorted to drinking the
saline drips meant for their patients. I thought of Hirin
the young soldier, who walked into my tent to volunteer his
help. Despite losing over 100 of his colleagues in the quake,
every day he mobilized 50 volunteers to offload the aircraft.
Then there was the army surgeon, who single-handedly had carried
out 45 amputations of crushed limbs in the first 24 hours.
The true scale of this tragedy will probably never be known.
In Hindu tradition, families who have lost loved ones undergo
a ritual shaving to mark a ten-day mourning period. The thousands
of freshly shaved scalps that can be seen across Kutch today
bear testimony to the massive loss.
Patrick Fuller is Federation regional information delegate
in New Delhi.
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