TORONTO — Reena Vohra was walking through a narrow alley in an ancient city in Nepal when an immense magnitude-7.8 earthquake struck, killing hundreds and unleashing chaos on the region.
The Toronto aid worker fled with a group of her World Vision colleagues to a nearby shop entrance, where they watched as the historic site of Bhaktapur crumbled around them.
“People were screaming and crying all around me,” she said a statement that was provided by World Vision. “I’m still incredibly shaken up. I’ve never experienced anything like this.”
Nearly 1,200 people were killed in the quake in Nepal’s densely populated Kathmandu Valley. Deaths are reported in India, Tibet and Bangladesh.
The Foreign Affairs Department said there are 388 Canadians registered as being in Nepal, but cautioned that was only an estimate as registration is voluntary.
Among the Canadians is former New Brunswick NDP leader Elizabeth Weir, who tweeted Saturday , “Outside Kathmandu and still aftershocks with ground rumbling.”
Prime Minister Stephen Harper released a statement offering “heartfelt condolences” to all who lost loved ones.
“We mourn with the people of Nepal and India in the aftermath of this terrible natural disaster and offer our help and our prayers,” he said.
Harper said officials are working with local authorities to ensure Canadians are safe and to find the best way to assist with the disaster if Canada is asked to help.
Vohra recalled that once it felt safe, she and her colleagues ran to an open space where they could see the devastation of the ancient pagodas and temples they had just visited.
The child protection specialist has returned to a hotel in Kathmandu but cannot fly out because the airport is closed.
“We are still feeling tremors and we continue to run outside each time we feel the ground shake,” she said. “I’m still feeling unsettled as the aftershocks continue.”
Rupa Joshi, a UNICEF communications officer, said the quake was nothing like she has experienced in her life.
“When I went out in the evening, I saw many people preparing to camp out in the main open parade ground in the middle of the street. Relatives were crying in the main government hospital where the dead were being lined up in front of the hospital building,” she said in an emailed statement.
Joshi said many old monuments, including famous temples, have fallen down. Residents fear that more buildings will collapse as many are made with mortar mixed with mud, she said.
Many fear the death rate in Kathmandu will rise, though it was fortunate the quake occurred on a Saturday when schools were closed, she added.
“Near the city I saw an open van rushing towards the hospital. At the back of it, rolling with the twists and bumps of the road was the body of what must have been a very young girl,” she said.
“Face down all covered in dust. Black jeans covered with dust. Hair tangled with dust. That made me realize the enormity of the impact to everyone’s lives here. I feel pain for all the families here. Lives snuffed out in a minute.”
Foreign Affairs spokeswoman Diana Khaddaj said the Emergency Watch and Response Centre in Ottawa and Canadian offices abroad are working with local authorities to help Canadians in the region.
Khaddaj said friends and relatives in Canada of Canadian citizens in Nepal or the surrounding affected area should contact the department’s emergency centre for information.
But some families were turning to social media in an effort to track down relatives in the quake-stricken area. A number of people tweeted asking if anyone heard from their loved ones.