Death Toll Rises After Quake Strikes India, Nepal

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Navesh Chitrakar / Reuters

A woman is taken to a hospital after being injured in a stampede following an earthquake in the Indian city of Siliguri on Sept. 18, 2011

Soldiers, rescue teams and medical personnel are working overtime to rescue people trapped under the debris of a 6.9 magnitude earthquake that collapsed buildings, caused landslides, buried roads, killing at least 82 people in northeastern and eastern India, Nepal and Tibet. With many villages still out of reach and several trapped under the debris, the final toll remains uncertain but has been rising. Of the 82 deaths thus far, 68 are in India, which includes 53 in Sikkim. Three people were killed in Bihar and 12 in West Bengal. Seven people have died in Tibet and Nepal. A combination of bad weather and blocked roads meant the rescue team could only make its way to the epicenter of the quake in North Sikkim on Tuesday morning — almost two days after the quake that had sent tremors as far away as Bangladesh and the Indian cities of Kolkata and New Delhi. Around 20 places suffered aftershocks, further rattling residents.

A rescue team of around 400, including disaster management personnel, doctors and sniffer dogs, who were stranded in West Bengal since Sunday because of a massive landslide that had blocked the Gangtok-Siliguri highway — the link road between West Bengal and Sikkim — were able to make their way into Gangtok early evening on Monday. K.S. Topgey, spokesperson of the Sikkim government, and secretary of Information and Public relations, told TIME that the biggest challenge is road link restoration as North Sikkim, the epicenter of the quake, remains partially unreachable as some roads leading to smaller towns and villages are still blocked by landslides. According to an update released by the Indian government at 9pm Monday night, doctors were finally airlifted to Chungthang, one of the worst affected areas in North Sikkim, which has been without any power supply.

B.K. Roka from the Sikkim chapter of Indian Red Cross Society — whose volunteers have been working along with the civil defense rescue team — told TIME that although North Sikkim is thinly populated, some of the towns and villages are quite congested with the concrete buildings leading to a fear of greater casualties.

Approximately 5500 troops are working to provide relief and maintain the rescue operation to over 1500 displaced people. A thousand relief camps have been set up across Sikkim and the army has been managing 10 cookhouses to provide food to the people. Meanwhile, on Monday night television images showed men, women and children huddled under umbrellas at a makeshift camp. Most people spent the night in heavy rain, outside of their homes, fearing aftershocks. According to the Indian television channel CNN-IBN, rumors were abound in the region about the possibility of more earthquakes. The state government has started reaching out to people through messages on television and radio stations, trying to allay fears.

India's ministry of home affairs, who had been monitoring the situation in Sikkim "round the clock" asked the Sikkim government to set up community shelters and feeding centers in accessible areas. Neighboring West Bengal is also on standby with sufficient packets of dry food, match boxes, candles and medicines, ready at Siliguri for airdropping when the weather permits. Indian home secretary R.K. Singh told reporters on Monday that the rescue and relief operations were in full swing although they were being hampered by poor weather. Preliminary figure released by the Sikkim government said around 1000 houses have totally collapsed with more than 100,000 partially damaged.

Earlier, Sonia Gandhi, president of India's Congress Party, expressed her "deep concern and anxiety" over the quake and urged authorities to quickly extend help to the affected areas. India's Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh had also announced compensation of $4,000 for the families of those killed and $2,000 for those seriously wounded. Local officials said they, too, were mobilizing rescue teams as rapidly as they could. "When the earthquake happened, I, too, felt the tremor. Our departments are on the job, we are gathering information," Nitish Kumar, the chief minister of Bihar state, told reporters.

North Sikkim, despite its rough terrain is popular with tourists owing to its scenic beauty. The Press Trust of India news agency reported that police had rescued 15 foreign tourists in northern Sikkim, but didn't give their nationalities. "It was fortunate that the tourist season had not started in earnest," Topgey told TIME. "Most damages were in the rural areas. Gangtok and tourist areas have been more or less spared."

Sunday's quake was the biggest in the Himalayan region in 20 years. The deadliest tremors to have struck northeastern India occurred in 1950 and 1897. Each killed more than 1,500 people.