Oak Bay woman amidst devastation in Nepal

Therese Hanlon arrived in Nepal on day of the earthquake to volunteer at Bhaktapur Self-Sustaining children’s home

Therese Hanlon reads to Kusum

Therese Hanlon reads to Kusum

While people camped at the airport desperate to leave Nepal following a devastating earthquake, Therese Hanlon just as desperately overcame fear to work her way into the country.

The Oak Bay High grad left late last month on a long-planned return to volunteer at Bhaktapur Self-Sustaining children’s home where she expected to volunteer three weeks, then continue travelling with a friend for the remainder of three months.

She was aboard one of the first planes that landed after the earthquake.

Her parents may have heard the news first of the April 26 7.8-magnitude earthquake that killed more than 7,000 people.

“We knew she was in transit so we quickly figured out the time frame and thought, ‘I’m pretty sure she hasn’t landed yet. That’s probably good’,” said mom Trudy Hanlon. They started tracking the flight and found it was landing 90 minutes later than scheduled, roughly 13 hours after the devastating earthquake.

Therese was on a two-hour layover in Guangzhou when she heard about the earthquake. An announcement told them of an earthquake in Kathmandu, delaying the flight. Her initial concern was that it wouldn’t interfere too much with her travel plans – until those with WiFi started to gain more information.

“I learned that this wasn’t just some little tremor, and started to get scared. The initial death count was around 250. I was so nervous on the plane. I knew my family and friends would be very worried, and I had no way to reassure them. I also didn’t know what I would do at the airport as I knew I would no longer be picked up by the orphanage,” Theresa said in an email to the Oak Bay News.

“I was really scared that night. The airport was fairly damaged, and Nepali people and foreigners alike were camping in the parking lot of the airport, desperate to get out.”

She took a taxi into the tourist district of Kathmandu and was shocked by what she saw.

“Everyone in Kathmandu was out on the streets, walking around or huddling in groups. Countless houses and stores were collapsed. I grew more and more apprehensive as the taxi driver dropped us off in the middle of a dark street filled with people.”

She and a friend wandered through the pitch black streets, eventually finding an open hostel. She stayed outside with some other travellers for most of the night, in fear of the buildings collapsing.

“We felt a large aftershock that morning. We leapt out of our chairs and were halfway through the gate before it stopped,” she said. “Everyone was talking about running away, and my survival instinct kicked in as well, urging me to get out of the country any way I could.”

But the note from her mother informing her that the orphanage was in a safe place stopped her.

“She knew at that point that the kids were safe and the orphanage hadn’t collapsed so she had somewhere to go,” Trudy said, reassured that her daughter was making a good decision to stay “keeping the kids calm and happy and on a routine so they’re not traumatized.”

Therese got a taxi early that morning, scraping over cracks and buckles in the highway as she made her way to Bhaktapur.

“I almost started crying in the taxi as I saw the collapsed houses and people on the streets. I eventually made it to the orphanage,” she said.

She settled into Sipadol, a village above the city of Bhaktapur which is a 30-minute taxi ride from Kathmandu.

“Bhaktapur was severely affected by the earthquake – around 70 per cent of the homes collapsed or were quite damaged, and many people died,” she said.

Only a couple of homes collapsed in Sipadol, with others only sustaining minor damage.

“No one died, everyone has enough food and water, and people are slowly moving back into their houses. The children are all fine, and the orphanage only has some cracks in the plaster. “

The volunteers are helping out, cleaning up, teaching the value of hand sanitizer and frequently purchasing fresh fruit, juice and vitamins for the children.

“We’ve also been getting our hands dirty doing manual labour, such as helping to harvest the potato crop, mucking out the goat pen, and cleaning out the buffalo shed, so that the children could sleep there.”

Hanlon said the children are happy and their fears are slowly subsiding.

“Though the adults are still horror-struck by the destruction to Nepal and the number of people who lost their lives, we try to conceal it from the children as much as possible.”