The article is a compilation of the writer’s memoirs and blogs

October 8 2005. As I opened my laptop while answering a call, everything started shaking. I took position below the staircase before we moved to the lawn. Hanging flower pots were like pendulums. The electric pylon with the transformer was dancing. The shaking lasted about 5 minutes. Thankfully the computer was connected. TV channels had still not announced the news. Internet showed no alerts. At 9:10 AM when the world was yet to learn, I announced the earthquake on and forewarned a tragedy of mammoth proportions in Balakot-Muzzarafabad.

ARY broke the news with no details. I received an SMS from a friend. ‘SOS! I am at Margalla Towers organizing rescue, where is the rescue service?’ While the media czar was busy on ARY with his spin of ‘all is well’, the breaking news caption at the bottom flashed the reality.

This disconnect was a measure of the days to come and even today. I browsed the Japanese seismology website. After repeated refreshes it announced the epicenter to be near Balakot with a magnitude of 7.8. I informed the VCOAS and DGMO of the tragedy. The ugly reality began to dawn.

In May 2005, I had returned from my expedition to the inhospitable NARA Desert in Sindh. While studying the geology I learned that Pakistan was crisscrossed with fault lines like the Allah Wala Bund running through Karachi (that created Tsunamis 20 feet high), Chaman Fault, Kohistan Fault, Sargodha Fault, Hazara Fault and one running right next to my house, the Soan Fault. This fault split the primary section building of St Mary’s Academy in Rawalpindi the same day. The data saved in February 2005 was guide to ascertain the devastation that lay ahead.

Breaking away from the Karakoram Highway near Balakot, the road to Naran and Kaghan, meanders along the steep and lush green mountains that form the extreme bob of the Hazara Tectonic Plate before fusing into the Kohistan Massif. Thereon it moves into the south easterly direction north of Sri Nagar to Nepal and beyond. Similar tectonic activity, millions of years ago, created Malika Parbat and Saiful Maluk. Later it created the Cholistan and Nara deserts. Seismologists had accurately predicted an overdue earthquake on the Hazara Fault with an intensity of 8 between Kaghan to Srinagar.

I was three weeks from retirement and decided to use this time for relief. In many visits to the area, I could coincide a line running on the northern ridge of Kaghan Valley, north of Balakot and Garhi Habib Ullah to north of Muzaffarabad and Bagh with the assessment of seismologists. A spur of this ridgeline overlooked Batgaram located on the Korakoram Highway. The entire range slipped taking with it villages on terraced slopes. The shallow epicenter at Balakot 7 Kms below ground level contributed to the spread of the shockwaves thousands of Kilometers away. It perhaps also destabilised the fusion of tectonic plates. Satellite pictures showed formation of a lake on one of the tributaries of Neelum River. Bad weather restricted aerial rescue, just enough to allow those under the rubble to die. The dark angles of death in gangrene and tetanus prowled.

I left for Balakot with my son the same day. It presented a nuclear winter. The entire town was flattened and the terrace balconies of high rise buildings lay on the ground like cattle fences. The road from Garhi Habibullah to Balakot was badly damaged as it dramatically rose and fell beyond use. FWO made quick diversions and Muzaffarabad was accessible. The roads were congested with relief vehicles of volunteers and media. No writ of the federal or provincial authority was visible. Apart from a few dozers of FWO clearing the landslides, there were no excavators and diggers. Locals and volunteers were searching with spades, picks with wailings all over. As night fell, the city was covered in darkness except for the odd fires lit by the people over the debris that was once home.

Comparatively, Muzzafarabad, the capital of Azad Kashmir suffered less damage but not spared the wrath. Eye witnesses recount that the entire town was engulfed in dust for hours. About 40% buildings were left standing, most with serious cracks. Destruction was due to faulty structural engineering reflecting corruption. At places, private triple story buildings stood unscathed amidst total destruction.

The army positioned on the line of control suffered casualties. Most military logistic installations in Muzaffarabad were flattened. Local military units regrouped within hours and began the relief work. I saw Rangers and foreigners particularly from Malaysia, Singapore and Holland digging into rubble along with volunteers. There were announcements in the city calling elected representatives back to duty and organise relief. I met a colonel of the army who had lost two children organising relief and rescue.

As the national and international efforts scrambled to synergise, it was later that the true scale of the disaster emerged. Worst hit areas were remote and inaccessible. Rain and subzero temperatures in the coming weeks added to difficulties.

Down country, the frenzy to reach out to the destruction zones was visible in unending lines of loaded trucks. The nation demonstrated character that surprised foreign aid groups. While appreciating the civic response that eclipsed a credible relief effort by the government, Mr. Brett Williams of Direct Relief International commented to me that he had seen such a response lacking in the Tsunami and the New Orleans disaster.

My visits to the area with relief continued beyond my retirement. I set up water treatment plants to provide over 1,800 tons of mineral water. Balakot, the city of dead was abandoned without a concerted rescue. Tears dried and people became zombies. Wailings gave way to an eerie silence and resignation. As I stood photographing the cracked highway memorial, a small group from the mountains descended into the town. When they took full view of Balakot, the awe and despair on their faces was noticeable. The man I met had walked for three days to reach Balakot seeking help. He collapsed and refused water because he was fasting.

Unfortunately the government failed to capitalise on national cohesion and response to the tragedy. Corruption, bureaucratic delays, inefficiency and the NGO mafia eclipsed the fleeting moment of national character and morale. In due course, when nature takes over and the devastation is beautified by the flora and fauna, a generation would have been resigned to the thesis of geologists and anthropologists. Meanwhile those who were victims and those who heroically reached out will remain prey to the tantrums of elites.