I'm going to be buried alive: AFP journalists recount Everest horror

LUKLA, Nepal (AFP) - "We heard this most horrifying sound, it was like a train but came from so deep... and then finally there was this stillness, this complete stillness, and I knew I was alive," says AFP photographer Roberto Schmidt of the moment he survived an avalanche on Everest.

Schmidt, AFP's South Asia photo chief, and Kathmandu bureau chief Ammu Kannampilly had just reached Everest base camp on assignment Saturday when an avalanche - triggered by the 7.8-magnitude quake that has killed more than 4,310 in Nepal - thundered down the mountain.

After reaching the relative safety of Lukla town, the traditional gateway to Everest, they spoke of their recollections and recounted the scenes of carnage on the mountain where hundreds of climbers had gathered.

- Roberto Schmidt -

"We had just arrived after a nine-day trek. It's a tough hike and difficult to comprehend the impact on your body but it's an amazing place - truly breathtaking in both senses of the word," said Schmidt.

"As I got in I was just taking all sorts of pictures and then went looking for our tent.

"We hadn't been there more than 10 minutes we just felt this rumbling, this moan. Ammu said to me: 'What's that?' I said it's the earth moving, it's an avalanche.

"I grew up in Colombia where we used to have many tremors but never heard anything like this.

"We went out of the tent and then we heard this most horrifying sound. It was like a train but came from so deep, just so powerful.

"It was so cloudy, Ammu went into the tent and I remember looking to my left and suddenly saw this, this wave, with the rumble and I just thought 'holy shit'. It was so big, the pictures don't really do it justice.

"I grabbed the camera, just pressing the shutter, I got three shots and then it was right over us. I jumped in and went under the table.

"You have this wind and then it's like a wave crashing, we were swept up, you don't know if whether you are upside down or what. You are just tumbling.

"Finally I came to, resting on my back and then I felt this tack, tack sound of falling rocks and you know I just felt 'this is it. I'm going to be buried alive'.

"They kept on piling on top of me and then finally there was this stillness, this complete stillness, and I knew I was alive. I knew I was conscious and I had to work out how I was going to breathe.

"You're trying to clear everything away, trying to get some air... and then suddenly I felt this hand pulling me up and it was our sherpa Pasang.

"Ammu was bleeding and the nail on her left hand had been completely torn off.

"We were lucky as I think our tents were next to a rock which stopped us from being completely swept away.

"I said I need to find my camera and he just handed it over to me, encased basically in a block of snow. The camera was fine, the lens wasn't even broken.

"We went out of the tent and people then started appearing out of the blue, all very dazed. I started shooting and then you think, should I be taking pictures or helping people?

"In the next hour, you could hear more than half a dozen other avalanches in the vicinity. They were close but you couldn't see them as it was so cloudy. The sound was very scary, very haunting, you didn't know if it was coming your way.

"I started helping down a Nepalese guy who had been injured and I remember talking to him about our families and saying we would both see our sons again, it was a nice moment, a human thing, amid all of this...

"We walked to this Himex (tour group) tent and there was Ammu, all bandaged up."

- Ammu Kannampilly -

"There was the noise and Roberto stepped out to take photos," said Kannampilly.

"I rushed inside to find my camera and in a split second he yelled - Get down! - and he came running into the tent and I ducked under the dining table and closed my eyes.

"When the shaking stopped and I opened my eyes everything was white, like we had been thrown into a pack of icing sugar.

"I tried to scrape away the snow and I noticed that my hands were covered in blood, my glasses had gone and I screamed Roberto's name and heard him moan and say 'My God' in Spanish.

"I heard Pasang Sherpa calling my name and I screamed as loudly as I could he ran over and tore off the nylon tent cover and dug us out. There was something on my leg which I guess he removed.

"I remember getting up and everything was white and it was really, really quiet. I remember thinking: how could everything be so quiet, where is everyone?

"I saw one of the porters, he was in a lot of pain, covered in blankets.

"Our dining room attendant whom I had met just two minutes earlier was there, her head was bleeding.

"I saw this one roll of toilet paper and tried to wrap it round her head and she started wrapping my hand as well.

"After the first aftershocks, I got out the (video) camera and started filming on full auto as I couldn't see properly.

"Soon the toilet paper wouldn't hold and I started getting blood on the camera but there were more aftershocks and the sherpa told us we had to get out of there.

"We got to the Himex tent - they call it the white pod - and they washed down my hands.

"They said 'you sit there, relax' but I got restless as I felt I wasn't helping anyone and I wasn't working.

"I felt like I needed to be doing something else, so someone gave me a spare pair of gloves, a sherpa came with me and I shot a few frames of the rescue effort.

"I remember thinking how quickly they mobilised. There were no choppers the first day but I remember thinking, wow, people are already being taken care of. They were organising medical aid, helped us with sleeping bags.

"There were about 15-20 of us in the Himex tent that night but I couldn't really sleep and kept on thinking about the porter that had been hurt, I couldn't work out why we had survived.

"In the middle of the night, I got up to go to the toilet and on the way back I looked up and I could see the mountains and I saw the most spotless sky - it was so beautiful - as if nothing had happened that day."

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