ASIA

After Nepal quake, teams search for bodies — and closure for families

It's a grim job to dig out bodies after the earthquake in Nepal, but police say they are obligated to do it

It had been a week and a half since the massive earthquake that killed more than 8, 300 people. The Nepali government had told international search teams to stand down. There had been no miraculous rescues in recent days.

But there were still bodies to recover, especially in the capital's Gongabu neighborhood, where whole blocks of buildings had been leveled by the temblor.

Gongabu is a sketchy area, home to a busy bus terminal, its dusty thoroughfare frequented by prostitutes, drug dealers and other petty criminals. Spare, high-rise guesthouses serve as way stations for migrant workers traveling from distant villages to the Middle East to find jobs.

I first arrived in Gongabu a few days before. I'd been warned about the smell of decaying corpses and bought a cotton mask from a roadside vendor, a common practice here. I soon found a Nepalese search and rescue team working alongside Hungarian and Korean counterparts to extricate the remains of a building owner as hundreds looked on.

The body was recovered the next day. Now that I had returned, days before a major aftershock on May 12 resulted in more than 90 deaths, the crowd and the odor in the area had thinned.

Most people lining the road were waiting for buses and vans, whose drivers would hop out and shout their destinations. Women were camped behind roadside tables selling sunglasses and scarves. Some storefronts had reopened: a cellphone shop, an Internet cafe, a convenience store.

Santosh Bhandari, 18, lives nearby and said it was time to call off the searches.

"Priority should be given to the living," he said through his surgical mask. "Dead means dead."

Nepali police, however, were still seeking to remove a body from beneath the wreckage of a guesthouse tilting off its crumbled foundation into a nearby alley, where more were presumed buried in the rubble. You'll smell it, Bhandari said.

That dead body smell.

A team of about 50 armed police officers had gathered in the roped-off alley behind the listing remains of the Butwal Guest House. The yellow and white concrete high-rise had once stood nine stories tall, but the initial magnitude 7.8 quake had chopped it down to four. A breeze stirred the brocade drapes behind its shattered windows. Pigeons cooed above, occasionally taking flight and raining dust on our heads.

The police let me climb down a pile of broken bricks and concrete into the crevice where they were working. I tried not to breathe. I noticed potatoes, bags of soybean cooking oil and metal pots. Working mostly with their bare hands, the search and rescue team had managed to dig into what was once the guesthouse kitchen. There, wedged between a tea table and refrigerator, was the body of what appeared to be a young Nepali man.

He was pinned, as if carrying the weight of the building on his shoulders. All I could see was his dusty bluejeans.

I remained for about an hour as the crew tried to free his body. They had arrived at 10 a.m. It was now after 5 p.m. Many had not eaten all day. Most wore hard hats, but they had no other safety equipment.

I asked whether they thought it was worth risking the safety of so many officers for one body.

"It may be risky, but these are our orders and we will save as many bodies as possible," Inspector Yograj Dahal said. "It's worth it for the families."

The fact that the man's face, which some had managed to glimpse, was intact, so those searching for lost loved ones might be able to identify the body, Dahal said.

Police had also found two bodies here a day earlier, which they sent to a makeshift morgue at the Katmandu Medical College and Teaching Hospital for identification. They believed more might be buried near that of the young man. They would know more after they got him out.

At one point, three officers tugged on the legs — no luck. The upper portion of the body was stuck, arms splayed out into the crushed concrete in a tight embrace.

As darkness fell, I retraced my steps, out back past yellow safety tape cordoning off the alley. A crowd of about 100 onlookers remained, some having grown increasingly angry.

Panchak Thapa, 19, said he had been staying at the guesthouse with his 21-year-old brother. They had traveled east from the city of Dhading, bound for construction jobs in the Persian Gulf.

Thapa lost everything he had, including his brother.

"My brother's body is in there and I can't even do his mourning ceremony," Thapa said. "The government is not looking after earthquake victims in this area."

The police crew kept working, but they were unable to free the body of the young man. They left for the night.

They finally freed the body the next day and kept searching, finding six in total. All were taken to the teaching hospital for identification. The search team never learned who they were.

After the 7.3 quake on May 12 damaged already shaky buildings in Gongabu, the team was forced to postpone its searches.

"It's too risky and too difficult to look for dead bodies over there," Inspector Sauraj Paudel said.

The team shifted its efforts to counseling and medically treating the survivors, he said.

"We are focused on rehabilitation," Paudel said.

molly.hennessy-fiske@latimes.com

Twitter: @mollyhf

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