CHARIKOT, Nepal (Reuters) - A daylong search failed to find a missing U.S. Marine helicopter on Wednesday, a day after the second Nepal earthquake in less than three weeks killed scores and triggered landslides across the Himalayan nation.
Nepal is still reeling from last month’s devastating quake, which killed more than 8,000 people and injured close to 20,000.
The U.S. helicopter was delivering aid in Dolakha, one of the districts hit hardest by both quakes, on Tuesday when it went missing with six Marines and two Nepali soldiers on board.
Six Nepali helicopters and about 400 soldiers found no sign of the Marine Corps UH-1Y Huey in forested and rugged terrain.
“There is no positive confirmation of any sighting of the aircraft, and we have no communication with them at this moment,” said Marines spokeswoman Captain Cassandra Gesecki. She said there was no evidence to indicate a crash.
Roads in Dolakha were cracked and littered with large boulders, a Reuters witness said. In the village of Suspa Kshamawati, 80 percent of the houses were destroyed.
Krishna Budhathoki, 40, now lives in his cattle pen. “We want to be able to build a new home before the monsoon, but there’s not enough time to do so now, and how can we build during the rainy season?” he said.
The Canadian Red Cross pulled a nine-member medical team out of Tatopani, which is on the road from Kathmandu to Tibet and was close to the epicenter of Tuesday’s earthquake, citing the danger of landslides.
“When the earthquake happened, big blocks of mountain came down that took away houses,” team leader Cyril Stein told Reuters from Kathmandu. “I heard the top of a mountain collapse while I was on the telephone with my team.”
The field clinic, which had been treating more than 50 patients a day, was threatened by a mountain block that looked like it might break loose, he said.
In Dolakha district’s capital, Charikot, other relief and military helicopters brought people injured when buildings collapsed and landslides struck in outlying hamlets to an open-air clinic where they were treated on bloodied tarpaulins.
The helicopters alternated between evacuating people and searching for the Marines’ Huey, which lost radio contact after crew members were heard talking about fuel problems.
Two other Marine Corps Hueys and two tilt-rotor V-22 Ospreys spent about 21 hours in the air searching for the missing helicopter on Wednesday, the U.S. military said.
The Hueys each carried two U.S. Air Force para-rescue troops able to jump into a site to offer medical help. One of the Hueys was outfitted with a hoist so it could lower people to help if no landing zone was available, U.S. Pacific Command said.
A Pentagon spokesman said he had nothing to verify reports that the helicopter had been found and that the aerial search would resume on Thursday.
Bala Nanda Sharma, a retired Nepali army general, visited the army base in Charikot and discussed the search for the missing U.S. helicopter.
“If it just landed in that forest, it would be lost. Only helicopter pilots who have the eye will be able to find it. This terrain is very beautiful, but very difficult,” he said, gesturing toward a hillside.
Nepal Home Ministry official Laxmi Prasad Dahal said he feared the search was diverting resources from relief and rescue operations.
“The work of sending relief and rescuing the injured people to hospitals has been delayed due to this,” he told Reuters.
A police official in Kathmandu said 80 people had died and 2,376 were injured in Tuesday’s quake, which also killed 17 people in neighboring India. Charikot, 75 km (45 miles) east of Kathmandu, was one of the hardest-hit areas.
Most of the reported deaths were in towns and villages which, like Charikot, were only just starting to recover from last month’s quake.
Tuesday’s quake and subsequent aftershocks forced many panic-stricken Nepalis to spend yet another night outdoors in makeshift tents and relief camps.
“It looks like a graveyard here,” said Aula Bahadur Ale, the assistant administrator of Dolakha.
“Even those houses that have not been flattened have developed cracks. People are too afraid to go into them. We are still feeling the aftershocks that makes people terrified.”
The April quake damaged or destroyed hundreds of thousands of buildings, including ancient temples, and triggered an avalanche on Mount Everest that killed 18 climbers and cut short the climbing season on the world’s tallest peak.
The tremors have left areas of Nepal perilously unstable, leading to fears of more landslides, especially when seasonal monsoon rains begin to fall in the coming weeks.
Additional reporting by Gopal Sharma in KATHMANDU, Frank Jack Daniel and Douglas Busvine in NEW DELHI and David Alexander and Phil Stewart in WASHINGTON; Writing by Frank Jack Daniel; Editing by Louise Ireland