Tuesday, September 20, 2011

7,000 people find shelter in Gangtok's Palzor Stadium

Paljor stadium in Gangtok is a five-minute walk from Hotel Mount View. At 6.22 pm on Sunday evening, when the 6.9-magnitude earthquake struck, two football enthusiasts —a coach and a player — were watching the game: Tottenham versus Liverpool in their fourth Barclays Premier League match of the season.
But once Hotel Mount View started to shake, the coach, Jose Antonio Borges Tavares from Lisbon, Portugal and Quinton Jacobs, the midfielder from Windhoek, Namibia — both members of the Bhaichung Bhutia’s United Sikkim Football Club (USFC), ran outside — Jose, with his passport in hand.

The aftershocks magnified the chaos. This was Quinton’s first earthquake experience. His family hasn’t been able to reach him yet. And Quinton isn’t sure if his mother has seen the news yet. “I was so scared,” says the mid fielder. Coach Jose, having survived more earthquakes, says he wasn’t scared for himself as much as he was worried at the sight of “old people and children, everyone crying and running — to their cars, to the stadium.”

All of Gangtok, it seemed to him, was running towards Paljor. The captain of their ship, Bhaichung, CEO of USFC, was in his village Tinkitam in South Sikkim along with manager Arjun Rai on a football recce since the previous day. The diligent updater of the club’s Facebook page had posted updates:

“They are getting back to Gangtok but multiple road blocks and landslides have them stranded in between. They are walking, making transhipments and in touch regularly. Their family are all safe.” But with networks down, and their car rumoured to be stuck in a landslide, there was no way to get in touch.
Coach Jose spent the night on the road, next to the stadium. Quinton didn’t sleep, preferring to ditch his room for a few winks in the hotel lobby, lest the earthquake returned. “It’s all okay now we’re just waiting for Bhaichung and Arjun to return.” On Monday evening, both of them were home safe in Gangtok but remained incommunicado. Many of the team members from USFC were spread out over the state but were reported to be safe.
‘All okay’ though is a bit of a stretch. On Sunday night, by 11 pm, an estimated 7,000 locals, with blankets and bedding, took refuge in the safe open field of Paljor. “There was so much panic - women were carrying their babies and crying,” Thupten Bhutia, in-charge of the stadium, told DNA.

“The whole place was packed.” Thupten says he’d never seen anything like it before - “One man had run away from hospital to be at the stadium because he felt safer out in the open”. “Even now” - at 6.30 pm on Monday night, Thupten says, “people have started to line up outside the stadium.” In Gangtok, people are still afraid of the indoors.

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