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Engineer tells of escape from Nepal earthquake

An ICE Fellow has told NCE about his dramatic escape from the devastation caused by the earthquake in Nepal last month.

Independent engineering consultant Stephen John was in Kathmandu in connection with his work on the nearby Melamchi Water Supply Tunnel scheme when the natural disaster struck on Saturday 25 April.

After sheltering in a square and on a roundabout, he made it home via the British Embassy and a Gurkha army camp. Now he is working through contacts he made in Nepal, and with engineering charity RedR, to help advise local engineers on earthquake safety.An ICE Fellow has told NCE about his dramatic escape from the devastation caused by the earthquake in Nepal last month.

Independent engineering consultant Stephen John was in Kathmandu in connection with his work on the nearby Melamchi Water Supply Tunnel scheme, when the disaster struck on Saturday 25 April.

After sheltering in a square and on a roundabout, he made it home via the British Embassy and a Gurkha army camp. Now he is advising local workers and engineers on earthquake safety.

“I had been attending a dispute hearing but I had a day off and I was in a gift shop in a narrow street,” said John. “I heard what I thought was thunder, looked up and the guy serving me had gone.

“Everything started to shake. I went outside and 15m in front of me a building fell down. I thought I was going to die.”

After sheltering in the entrance of a building, John ran 250m to an open square, where he waited for an hour. But, he still felt vulnerable from the tall structures lining the square and decided to attempt to get to a safer part of the city.

“I summoned up the courage to run about 1km to the wider streets,” he said. “At one point I had to pick my way through a concrete pylon that had fallen on a taxi and was sparking. After about 10 minutes I found a big intersection with a roundabout.”

As terrified locals and tourists gathered on the roundabout, John teamed up with a British couple and used a Lonely Planet guide to locate the British Embassy

“We walked in the gutter so we could access the middle of the road if we needed to,” he said. “When we saw big buildings, we ran past them.

That night was spent sleeping in a hall on the embassy grounds, with three aftershocks punctuating the early hours.

After a trip across the damage-strewn city to pick up his passport, John was transferred to a Gurkha camp that was in full emergency mode.

“It was a serious situation, with water and power in short supply,” said John. “The lieutenant colonel went mental when he caught a few girls having a shower or going on Facebook. They didn’t realise the situation they were in.”

Once John had communicated with home and asked his wife to confirm his airline ticket, he was driven by the Gurkhas directly to the airport terminal. But he wasn’t safe yet.

“The airport was chaotic. I managed to find a corner where it was braced and I decided this was the safest place. Even when we were taxiing on the runway there was another aftershock.”

John made it to Doha on 5 May and had his first shower in four days before flying back to the UK.

“Qatar Airways were fantastic, they really looked after us, handing out chocolate bars and water,” he said.

“I want to thank the British Embassy and the Gurkhas as well. When you really need that colonial backbone - it works.”

John thinks his professional training helped him survive the earthquake. “My engineering background definitely helped. I was able not to panic, to risk assess, to choose the best options. I hope I made logical decisions.”

Now he is offering to help the country with its long-term rebuilding and risk reduction programme.

“I’m in touch with one guy who I met at the embassy, who has local staff concerned about building safety, so I provide advice from photos he emails me. I’ve also offered to work with RedR to help mentor local engineers by Skype.”

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