Relief at Changi Airport as families with relatives in Nepal are reunited

SINGAPORE - It was a sweet homecoming for some 150 passengers of SilkAir flight MI411 on Sunday night.

The flight had arrived from the disaster-struck Nepalese capital of Kathmandu, landing just before 11pm on Sunday night. The flight was originally scheduled to arrive at 8:15pm, but was delayed for about three hours.

A 7.9 magnitude earthquake first struck Nepal and northern India on Saturday, with aftershocks continuing to pummel the country. The disaster, the worst to have hit the country in 81 years, has claimed more than 2,400 lives so far.

A 25-year-old clerk who only gave her name as Mrs Ng, was at the airport from as early as 10pm. Her husband was one of the passengers on board the SilkAir flight.

"My husband called me at about 5pm to tell me about the flight delay," said Mrs Ng, who is pregnant. "But I am very worried."

Student Zihan Ruslan, 22, whose sister and brother-in-law were in Nepal for a holiday, was also seen waiting at the airport for her family. She said the flight delay might be due to the aftershocks on Sunday afternoon that caused the Kathmandu airport to close.

"Right after she got her boarding pass, (my sister) told us that there were aftershocks and the airport was closed. They had to sleep outside, but people gave her blankets and jackets to keep her warm," said Ms Ruslan.

The flight landed at 10.53pm. People were seen waving excitedly to their relatives and friends as the passengers of the SilkAir flight strolled to baggage carousel 35 of the Arrival Hall. Some of those waiting outside had tears in their eyes, relieved that their loved ones had made it back home safely.

Accountant Latha Eapen, 58, said she was at the airport as she was not sure if her sister-in-law was on the flight.

"The last thing I told her when I dropped her off three weeks ago was to be careful of altitude sickness, who would have expected an earthquake to happen instead," she said. Thankfully, her sister-in-law, 59-year-old Carol Eapen, made it home safe.

The arrival of the flight marked the end of a harrowing ordeal for the passengers, some of whom had to cut short their holidays.

Ms Ruslan's sister, yoga instructor Raihan Ruslan, 34, was in Nepal for a yoga course and was due to return only on Wednesday (29 April). She and her husband Azim Ezat, a 36-year-old cabin crew, had gone on the trip in celebration of her 34th birthday, which fell on 20th April.

"A lot of flights were cancelled, so we didn't know how many nights we had to stay," said Ms Ruslan, who is four months pregnant. She added: "It felt unreal at first, and with things happening bit by bit it felt like a really bad disaster movie that I'm not supposed to be in."

She also said that she had to spend the night outdoors when it started to rain. Coupled with the tremors, which felt like a big truck moving through an area, it was scary, added Ms Ruslan.

"Because I'm pregnant, I could not jump around. This time, I just needed to get to somewhere safe. And another thought was how long it would take, because the longer it gets, the more destructive it will be."

Finance director Indeevar Kaul, 48, was supposed to join his 19-year-old daughter and wife, 44, in Kathmandu for a holiday. His daughter, Shasta, and wife, Minakshi, had just returned from Everest on Friday - one day before the earthquake hit.

Mr Kaul was on board a Thai Airways flight to Kathmandu when the disaster struck on Saturday. His plane had to land in Calcutta to refuel, before it made its way back to Bangkok, he said. Mr Kaul arrived in Singapore only on Sunday morning, and was tearfully reunited with his daughter and wife,who were on board the SilkAir flight, on Sunday night.

Another passenger, Mr Leslie Chang, 52, president of the Singapore Motor Sports Association, spoke of the long wait. He said: "There was no information. There were many people queuing outside the airport, temperature was as low as 18 deg C, so the situation was really bad... It can't get worse than that.

"The meal we had (on board) was one of the best we had. Not because the aircraft food was very good, but because we didn't eat for two days. During the last 48 hours, we were just relying on fruits and water with no proper food - it was really not business as usual."

audreyt@sph.com.sg