Medical trip to Himalayas starts with charity clinic in remote mountain village and ends with Kathmandu horror as Rachel sees city from the air

Rachel Hamilton during an ear operation in the clinic at the Himalayan village.
Rachel Hamilton during an ear operation in the clinic at the Himalayan village.

A nurse from Portadown, caught up in the Nepal earthquake, has told how she was paralysed with fear as the earth shook and shuddered around her.

Ex-Portadown College student Rachel Hamilton (23) was seated in a jumbo jet, with hundreds of passengers, as it prepared for take-off from Kathmandu airport on Saturday. Then, the killer quake struck, buffeting the plane around like a toy.

Rachel could have been among the thousands of victims of the earthquake, having left the doomed centre of Kathmandu just hours earlier. She had planned to stay a few more days in the Nepalese capital, but changed her arrangements.

She had spent almost two weeks as a charity volunteer nurse in a remote Himalayan village, and recalled, “The plane shook and vibrated so much that the wings were scraping against the ground. It shuddered and rattled. Luggage was flying all over the place. Passengers were thrown about, screaming with fear.” It was the last of the planes to make it out of the airport which descended into chaos after the disastrous quake - 7.9 on the Richter scale.

Rachel went on, “My first thought was that we were being hijacked and then I realised we were still on the ground. Then I thought it was a freakish, powerful squall. It was all so sudden. There was no warning.”

The female pilot quickly took charge and evacuated the plane as the quake settled. “It was a wise decision,” said Rachel. “She reckoned there would be strong after-shocks and told us to stand well clear of the airport buildings and away from the planes parked in the vicinity. We braced ourselves for the tremors, and sure enough the ground started vibrating again, and the planes were shaking. We were in the safest place, in the wide open spaces of the airport.

“All contact had been lost with air traffic control and the pilot had to make the decisions. I couldn’t move with fear. My legs were numb and I was never so frightened in my life. We couldn’t believe what was happening.”

Again, the pilot made the right call and ordered everyone back onto the plane, which finally took off, with the runway intact. The destination was Delhi where the connection to Heathrow was due to take off later in the day.

As the jet climbed, the traumatised passengers viewed the nightmare effects of the earthquake on Kathmandu. “It was unimaginable,” said Rachel. “We had left the historic city – an international tourist attraction – a few hours earlier and all was peaceful and normal.” What they saw from the air was like a scene from a horror movie. “But this was real. The old part of the city was reduced to rubble. The famous Durbar Square was devastated.

“Much of the modern part of Kathmandu was still standing, although it, too, was badly damaged in places. It was like the aftermath of a tsunami. It was heart-breaking to see people clawing desperately in a bid to rescue victims buried in the ruins, where their homes had stood. It’s a sight that will live with me for the rest of my life.”

There was chaos in Delhi, with the airport jammed with people trying to get in and out. After being put up in a hotel, Rachel missed two connections to London, but finally flew out on a plane bound for Heathrow, via Frankfurt. She was mightily relieved when she stepped back onto British soil on Sunday morning.

Rachel was in Nepal as part of a charity medical team - four surgeons, three nurses and three audiologists - with the International Nepal International Fellowship (INF). They had travelled to the remote Himalayan village of Rolpa to work in an ENT camp. They held 1,200 clinics and performed 90 ear operations, major and minor. “Thankfully, the latest news from the area indicates the team is fine,” she said.

Rachel graduated from Queen’s University two years ago and has since worked as a haematology nurse in the Royal Devon and Exeter Hospital in England’s south-west. The Nepal trip was her first international charity work. “I aim to go back,” she said. “The early part was a wonderful experience. I learned about INF from my aunt in Portadown, Rosie Sleator. It’s vital, rewarding work.”

Rachel is the daughter of Simon and Karen Hamilton, and has a younger brother and sister, Sarah and Peter.