Nepal like a 'war zone,' MSU student says
In the aftermath of the most destructive earthquake to hit Nepal in decades, Phillip Eskander witnessed unimaginable, chaotic sights "like something from a movie."
Over several days, the 26-year-old Michigan State University medical student said he heard a mountain crack, then saw dead animals along streets, toppled temples and a teaching hospital in the nation's capital that "looked like a war zone."
"It was filled with injured," the longtime Portage resident wrote in an email Tuesday. "The dead were being unloaded off of pickup trucks. Helicopters were landing on a soccer field with more injured. Doctors and staff were running around.
"We met up with medical residents and introduced ourselves as graduating medical students from America. We were told to go to the Ministry of Health in Central Kathmandu in order to be assigned work either in the hospital or in the field."
The death toll in Nepal continues to climb after Saturday's magnitude-7.8 earthquake and aftershocks. More than 4,700 people have been killed and thousands more injured, with helicopters crisscrossing the mountains, ferrying the injured and delivering emergency supplies. Rescue workers and medical teams from at least a dozen countries were helping police and army troops in Kathmandu and surrounding areas.
Eskander is among the Michigan survivors of the deadly disaster either working to find a way home or braving numerous challenges to join aid efforts.
Relatives are relieved to know their loved ones are alive, and comforted that they want to try to help the survivors.
"Now he actually sees the real human condition," said Ken Cousino of Ypsilanti Township, whose 19-year-son, Owen, is with others at the U.S. Embassy in Kathmandu planning to assist the Red Cross. "This is really life-changing for him."
Eskander and Owen Cousino were among at least nine people with Michigan ties initially listed as missing after the quake on a website headed by the International Committee of the Red Cross. But they, and at least two others, have contacted family.
"I got a call at 5:40 a.m." Monday, said Carolyn Chaudhary of Charlotte, near Lansing. Her son Eric, 28, a registered nurse who spent two years with the Peace Corps in Guyana, was in Nepal on a 25-day visa. "He was at the base camp of Mount Everest and he had left there. He told me where he was. I couldn't understand; the connection was really bad. He said he was going to stay for a couple days and it was a three-day hike back to Kathmandu. He would figure out from there how to get out of the country."
Christine Bedenis, 27, a Plymouth native, also was in Nepal's mountains for a nearly three-week trek. The Salem High School graduate had recently completed a stint with the Peace Corps in Thailand, said her mother, Kay Bedenis.
Though the hikers were not close to the quake's epicenter, "they felt some tremors, saw some avalanches and landslides in the distance," Bedenis said.
At word of the quake, Bedenis said she and relatives rushed online and "were using all methods possible to communicate with (Christine) and try to make contact with her so she could let us know she was safe."
Christine Bedenis finally tweeted and emailed her parents Monday. She still plans to finish the trek, her mother said. "She said they had food, water and shelter, and they were set for what they needed to do. They're able to take care of themselves where they were."
Eskander encountered a different scene. He and Jon VandenBerg, a fellow MSU College of Osteopathic Medicine student from Grand Rapids, reached Ghorepani, which lacked electricity. They sought refuge in a teahouse that night, "but we all huddled by a fire on the main floor in case we were hit (by a quake) again," Eskander wrote in an email to The News.
"At 5 a.m., we felt another earthquake/aftershock and raced outside. We stayed up that entire night. The next morning, we continued to hear more news of what had happened. … I managed to find a phone that worked and contacted my sister of the situation."
Later, en route to the capital, he wrote: "The roads were in bad (shape). There were rocks and boulders scattered all over the highway from landslides. Thousands of people were frantically leaving Kathmandu.
"People were packed on top of buses with anything they could carry to get out of the city. Families of four were packed on one motorcycle carrying their belongings. It was like a mass migration, like something from a movie.
"Along the highway thousands of people were camped out in makeshift tents along banks of the river. People were scared to even step foot in a building."
After the earthquake delayed his bus trip from Pokhara, Owen Cousino eventually reached the American embassy in Kathmandu, staying in an attached home with dozens of others, his father said. "He's got food and water and he's in great shape."
Owen Cousino had been in Nepal for about a month — the latest jaunt in an international journey that began after he earned an associate's degree last year. The youngest of 11 children, he had accompanied his family in aid efforts after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. So Ken Cousino said it wasn't a surprise that his son, set to attend Grand Valley State University, planned to stay overseas to help out until his expected departure next month.
"We trust in God. We always want to help," said his father, who attends Christ the King Catholic Church in Ann Arbor. "He's always been in God's hands, but it is nice to see he's OK and it's heartwarming that he's willing to help other people."
Eskander filled out paperwork Tuesday so he could work more directly at the hospital in Kathmandu, said his sister, Caroline. "They'd rather spend their time digging people out or healing the sick. To me, that shows the physicians' spirit and the American spirit to serve. I really respect he's not taking the next flight out. … They've decided to stay and help for the remainder of the week."
Phillip graduates from medical school next month, then starts a residency in Metro Detroit, said another sister, Christine Eskander. He "has a heart of gold," she said. "If they needed someone to go help, he's the one. He's not afraid of anything. … Him and Jon, they both have big hearts."
Eskander told his family that he and VandenBerg were working with a Bangladeshi doctor and awaiting medications.
In an email early Wednesday, VandenBerg said he and his friend "connected with many of the aid groups coming into Nepal. This general meeting spot was full of opportunities to scope out (a) site for possible field hospitals and clinics.
"We were given bandaging supplies, but medications are in short supply. We are supposed to receive them this morning. Medications including antibiotics, antidiarrheals, antinausea, and antipyretics are some of the most important. We were able to purchase a number of important medications last night at a pharmacy for pennies per pill."
VandenBerg said he starts an internship in Chicago this summer. Though he and Eskander have medical expertise, he wrote, "Helping organize a disaster relief is something new for both of us. Anticipating the injuries, disease, and need all around Kathmandu is challenging. This has definitely sparked an interest in how to organize a force against such a wide reaching natural disaster."
Reached Tuesday night, Chris VandenBerg said his son has volunteered at a medical clinic and orphanage in Central and South America, so "helping others has always meant a lot to him."
Although the conditions in Nepal are taxing, he said, "all those things at the same time turn into an opportunity to make a difference."
Associated Press contributed to this report.