National Geographic : 1952 Mar
Caught in the Assam-Tibet Earthquake Record Shocks Dammed Rivers, Split Mountains, and Trapped Botanists in Rock-strewn Devastation for Three Months BY F. KINGDON-WARD* With Illustrations from Photographs by the Author DARKNESS had fallen over the upper Luhit Valley in rugged far-eastern Tibet. Our simple evening meal was finished; my wife was already in bed. Near by our two servants were sleeping peacefully in their tent. I was seated near the entrance to ours writing in my diary by the light of a hurricane lamp. I glanced at my watch; it was 8 o'clock. Suddenly a most extraordinary rumbling noise broke out, and the earth began to shudder violently. Shattering the dead silence of the night in that remote mountain retreat, the ominous rumble swelled to a deafening roar. It was as though the keystone had fallen out of the universe and the arch of the sky were collapsing. Alarmed, bewildered, but also curious, I sprang up and thrust my head between the tent flaps. The night was black, for there was no moon, but I remember seeing a dark ridge silhouetted against a planet-powdered ribbon of sky become fuzzy for a moment. The whole bristling edge of forest was shak ing violently. My wife leaped out of bed shouting "Earth quake!" I seized the lantern, and together we rushed outside, only to be thrown imme diately to the ground. The lantern went out. A dozen yards away our boys were crawling out of their tent. We yelled to them to join us, and, although they had not heard our shouts, a minute later they crawled across to where we lay. All four of us held hands and lay flat, wait ing for the end. Earthquake Roars to a Climax My first feeling of bewilderment had given place to stark terror. These solid mountains were in the grip of a force that was shaking them as a terrier shakes a rat. Yet, frightened as we were by the din and violent earth tremors, we spoke quite calmly to each other. The earthquake roared on. Something was pounding the ground beneath us with the force of a giant sledge hammer. Our once solid ground felt like no more than a thin covering stretched across the valley floor and attached by its edges to the mountains. It seemed that the very foundations of the world were breaking up under the violent blows, that the crust on which we lay would crumple like an ice floe in a rough sea and hurl us into a bottomless pit. Besides the roaring of the earthquake itself there was another more familiar sound-the crash of rock avalanches pouring into the valley on every side. The mountains them selves seemed to be falling into the gorge as cliffs broke in half and boulders poured down a hundred scuppers with a clatter and a rumble. Not far from our camp the mountain rose steeply for hundreds of feet to a higher terrace. Surely the slope would give way and we should be crushed to death or buried alive. But presently the battering ceased, and the noise died away except for an occasional ava lanche. Then without warning came four or five sharp explosions in quick succession, seem ingly high up in the dark sky. They sounded like ack-ack shells bursting. It was the cease fire; everything became quiet, and the mad ness was over for a while. The initial shock had lasted only four or five minutes. It had seemed an eternity. Floods and Landslides Bury Villages Returning to our tent, I noticed that my traveling clock was on the table and ticking, the altimeter still registered exactly 5,000 feet, and the thermometer showed 730 F. Nothing inside the tent was disturbed except a glass of water that had been upset. Luckily the steep slope near our camp had not slipped badly; at any rate, no boulders or slides reached us. Apparently we could not have selected a safer site. Not until weeks later did we learn the magnitude of the earthquake. Over thousands of square miles it created utter havoc. All communications were disrupted. Avalanches buried whole villages and flung rock dams across rivers. When the dams burst, devastat ing floods raced down valleys, sweeping every thing in their path. Fortunately, in this sparsely settled region the loss of human life, though in the hundreds, was surprisingly small for such an upheaval. Stock died by the thousands. Seismologists, whose instruments all over the *The author, a British scientist and explorer, has published numerous books and articles on plant hunt ing in southeastern Asia, including China, Burma, Tibet, Assam, and the Himalayas.