How People Behave After A Major Earthquake

By Manu Joseph

In the aftermath of a huge natural disaster people behave in unpredictable ways. Especially after an earthquake, like the one that struck Turkey and Syria on February 6, where the full scale of human tragedy unfolds slowly, in distinct phases, over days. There are times when you would think everything you knew about human beings was wrong.

As a reporter for Outlook Magazine I had covered the earthquake that struck Bhuj and other parts of Gujarat in 2001. I reached Bhuj twenty hours after the quake. Among the first people I met was a man who was standing on top of the debris of his home. His wife and children were trapped under. The Army was yet to arrive and there was no rescue operation underway. He said he could hear them occasionally calling for help, and they would fall silent for a long period, and then he would hear them again. I did not know how to speak to a man in such a situation. I thought I would leave him alone. I turned to someone close-by and asked for directions to a public ground. But the man whose family was buried under his feet intervened and began to give me directions in a very elaborate way, his hands telling me where I should turn left and where I should turn right. He even asked me when the article would appear. There are theories to explain what he did, but I believe we will never know what was going on in his mind. He looked like a man waiting for the bus that would bring all his children and wife and normal life back to him. Over the next few days I would soon meet many men like him. 

The photographer I accompanied, Prashant Panjiar, was accosted several times by people who asked him to take pictures of their dead. We were at first perplexed by this but soon learnt that they were asking him to take the pictures as proof of death because in situations like this a press photograph was as good as a death certificate. Men whose wives were proven to be dead could then remarry. Children whose parents were legally dead could settle property matters.

How do people get to know municipal details like this hours after they have lost their own?

In Anjar, where about 400 children perished in their school, Army personnel had begun the rescue operations. A few metres from this location I saw a man sitting on top of a cupboard that stood tilted on rubble. In that rubble on which the cupboard stood was the body of his 16-year-old brother. He was breaking the cupboard with a knife. 

“What are you doing?” I asked.

He told me there were jewels, money and perfume bottles inside. He wanted to extract them before the Army got to them. Later, a jawan would tell me, “I am sick of some of these people. Once they realise their family is dead, they quickly think of what to do next. Just now a woman asked me to bring an almirah out. She said there is Rs 350,000 in there. She also said that she will be watching me. I can’t handle [this] practicality.”

In Gandhidham, a town that was badly affected, there were vast areas where the smell of rotting bodies filled the air, and stray dogs became aggressive. They stood in packs in front of people and growled. They were probably biting the living and the dead who were still trapped in the debris. The smell of decaying human flesh is a haunting smell with its own deep melancholy. I remember the Bhuj earthquake chiefly through that smell. Standing in that stench, the people of Gandhidham told me how the media was unfairly portraying Bhuj as the calamity zone, and as a result, all monetary relief was going to Bhuj.

As I walked through Gandhidham I cam across a rescue operation. It was six in the evening on Sunday, and the operation was in the ruins of Vrindavan Building. Half-a-dozen men from the Air Defence unit stood with life detector-gadgets with special microphones that could transmit and detect sound. A crowd had gathering around the rubble. Among them was one Sarang Joshi, who looked much younger than his 15 years. He survived because he had gone to school for a flag-hoisting ceremony. His parents and brother were somewhere in the debris. For over two-and-a-half days, since the building fell, he had been waiting. There had to be some way he could go inside and drag his family out. He had not shed a single tear, people said. He was convinced his family was alive.

A soldier with the phone receiver turned to the crowd and puts his finger on his lips. The crowd quietened. The soldier strained to listen to his gadget. “Someone is alive,” he said. 

He would soon be identified as one Mr Joshi. A rumour spread through the crowd that eight people were alive in the debris. 

Major Deevan asked his men to begin work. For four hours they drilled a hole that took them eight feet down through the concrete debris and then

another six feet sideways. Finally a soldier reached ‘Mr Joshi’. He was trapped between two huge

concrete slabs. He could not move, but was conscious. When he saw the soldier he asked, “Where is my wife and son?” The jawan told him that

they are waiting for him outside. “Then whose leg is on my stomach? I can’t see rest of the body.” The soldier told him that the leg belonged to a corpse but not related to him.

Unable to move beyond one or two inches, there was much that Joshi could not see. To his left, under tonnes of bricks, was his dead elder son. It was his leg which is on Joshi’s stomach. And to his right was his wife, also dead. Believing his family was safe, Joshi now was desperate to live. He also knew that his younger son Sarang was not at home at the time the building fell and so was probably safe. 

Joshi begged the soldiers to cut off his leg. Over the days I would hear many times that people who were trapped begged the soldiers to cut off their body parts, do whatever, just them out. 

The jawans chiselled off the concrete around Joshi. Now he could move about half a foot either way and so he stretched his hands, a bit relieved. For some reason the soldiers lied to Sarang that all three of his family were alive, even though they told me the truth. 

“We’ll get your father out first,” someone told the boy.

For another two hours, the jawans tried to extricate Joshi but his leg was stuck under a huge beam that they could not reach. They fed him water and Frooti.

Past midnight, Major Deevan had a decision to take.

This was the discussion of his core team: 

“If we cut his leg off, we can pull him out”

“That’s the only way out but we cannot give him anaesthesia. He is a diabetic.”

“He has been in there for over 60 hours. So we have to cut his leg off when he is conscious.”

“We have to just drag him out, just pull pull pull”. 

A local doctor said Joshi may not survive the amputation. The final solution came from a jawan, “We should drill from the other side. But it’s dark now, there is no power and we simply do not have

enough generators or lights. We have to leave him here for the night and come back in the morning.”

The major finally decided to come back the next morning. A resident gave perfume bottles to a jawan to spray around Joshi, for he was surrounded by decaying corpses and the dogs were sneaking in to eat the dead and the dying. 

As the jawans left for their camp, one of them who

went into the tunnel, said, “Just now, Joshi’s relative took me aside and asked me to kill him. That way we can save him from all the misery. Give him an injection or something, that man told me.”

We slept in an army tent improvised from a parachute, knowing that Joshi, not far away, was lying almost immovable in the rubble. Next morning, the jawans went back to the ruins of Vrindavan. But Joshi was dead.


In other ruins, people stood on mounds of concrete, straining to hear a sound from a son or a daughter. Some of them tried not to cover their noses. How do you cover your face with a kerchief and hide from what is the only remnant of your child, someone told me. But the others had grown used to the dead. 

“Look out, there is a body on your way.” 

“I know but there is a big rock on it to step on.”


In the first twenty four hours of the quake, there was very little medical response. In an open playground, the injured gathered. A few medical interns who were attending to them were losing their temper. The ratio of the intern to the injured was about 1:60. So many bodies had gone past their gloves that those boys had become hardened, overnight. 

In one corner of the camp two men, who looked like volunteers, called out the names of local residents, over a microphone powered by a generator. When the names were called, people rushed their family and friends to the interns, some tried to limp as fast as they could and some didn’t turn up at all. I asked a man, among the injured, what his name was. 

He whispered, “Shakir”.

Why did he whisper? 

Because the two men who were reading the names out were from the RSS. But the RSS men were reading out Muslim names too. 

“What’s ideology in situations like this,” one of them, Jitendra Mehta, told me


By the fourth day, there were very few rescue attempts in the ruins. There were only excavations to retrieve bodies. But then someone found a new-born baby, as alive as he was the day he was born. He was found in the embrace of his mother, who was dead. She had probably died soon after her home had collapsed on her, and may have shielded the baby in a final act. As the rescued baby was held in the arms of a person, a crowd of neighbours and strangers encircled the child. One by one they touched the baby. I too inched forward for a chance to touch the baby. 


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