Helicopter Missions Bring Relief to Remote Areas

Rescue efforts continue in earthquake-damaged villages in the Himalayan foothills. Philip Reeves provides an eyewitness account of a helicopter relief-and-rescue mission — to take food in and bring the injured out.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

With many roads and bridges destroyed by the earthquake, helicopters are an indispensable part of the relief and rescue effort. NPR's Philip Reeves went on a helicopter mission with the Pakistani military to the mountains of the Northwest Frontier Province. He sent this report from the town of Mansehra.

(Soundbite of soldiers working)

PHILIP REEVES reporting:

Pakistani soldiers load bundles of clothes and boxes of milk and biscuits into a Russian-made transport helicopter. It's midmorning on day five after the South Asia earthquake. The aircraft is about to take off from a sports stadium now being used as a heliport by the Pakistani military. Today, choppers have been coming and going almost non-stop.

(Soundbite of helicopter engine)

REEVES: The loading's complete. The helicopter lifts off and wheels northwards towards the mountains. Within a few minutes, the damaged wrought by the quake becomes clear.

We're just right now flying over a tiny community on top of a hilltop, clearly a farming community, and it is totally devastated by the earthquake that happened a few days ago.

On the terraced hillsides below, clusters of people are standing in the debris of their homes. They're waving up at the helicopter as if stranded after a shipwreck. These are farming people who live by growing maize and potatoes halfway up the mountains. They know about survival, but now even they are desperate. A Pakistani soldier begins hurling supplies out of the helicopter's open door.

Winding down the hillsides, you can see the roads that used to link these people to the outside world but are blocked by heaps of rubble and boulders. In some places, landslides have swallowed up buildings. When a quake happens in these mountains, the earth actually comes down on your head. A man who gives his name as Brigadier Ahmed(ph) is traveling on the helicopter. The aircraft is heading for a badly damaged village called Ghanun(ph). Like all these communities, it's remote. The brigadier says the victims there have been without help for four days.

Brigadier AHMED: Yeah, this is the first time we have ...(unintelligible) this village ...(unintelligible). After all, this village is hidden from the main road unless you go deep inside. The pilot was initially asking the directions, so I invited him to that place.

REEVES: The brigadier originates from Ghanun. After the quake happened, he walked there, clambering across the hills for miles.

Brig. AHMED: I have gone here the day after this earthquake. I (unintelligible) whole distance about 35 kilometers, you know.

REEVES: Yes.

Brig. AHMED: Yeah, I stayed there for three days.

REEVES: Then he walked all the way back again to ask the Pakistani military to bring help.

(Soundbite of crowd noise)

REEVES: The helicopter touches down on a rough patch of ground beside a river. A crowd of several hundred ragged and dusty-looking people are waiting. There are men cradling injured children, whose heads are wrapped in grubby, blood-stained bandages. Among the crowd is Fahi Mazimula(ph). He says no one knows how many people are hurt, but it's bad.

Mr. FAHI MAZIMULA: We have not calculated anyone. Only we have prediction that we have more than 1,000 casualties or more. And almost 1,000 people have been killed here in one day.

REEVES: Out of the crowd, people carry injured men, women and children. A semiconscious old woman is brought out in a crude wooden bed. A man carries a small, dusty-faced boy who's lost the lower half of his leg. A throng of people frantically begins to try to load the injured onto the helicopter. A man with a stick pushes people back. Eventually, some 20 injured people are brought on board and lie wrapped in rags, squeezed together on the floor. There's no medical team on board. They're given biscuits and cartons of juice. The brigadier watches on.

Brig. AHMED: This is terrible here. The casualties are so much that you just cannot imagine.

REEVES: The helicopter takes off again. Twenty minutes later, it touches down, this time in a town called Dabotaban(ph), where there are clinics and a military base. The patients are carried off.

(Soundbite of crowd noise)

Unidentified Man #1: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Man #2: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Woman: (Foreign language spoken)

REEVES: `I have lost my two daughters and my husband,' says this woman, as she hobbles towards the helicopter's door. Another one replies, `Be patient. I haven't found my brother yet.'

The victims of the South Asia earthquake have no choice but to be patient. This particular mission's over, but there'll have to be many more. One crewman estimated that it'll take 10 more flights just to get the seriously injured out of Ghanun, and there are plenty more places like it. Philip Reeves, NPR News, Mansehra.

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