CHARIKOT, Nepal (Reuters) - Military helicopters flew over eastern Nepal and a team sent up a drone on Thursday to search for a missing U.S. Marines Huey chopper, as the death toll rose from the Himalayan country’s second big earthquake in less than three weeks.
A Reuters correspondent flew on a Nepali military helicopter along the Tamakoshi river that runs by the town of Charikot, in the mountainous Dolakha district worst hit by Tuesday’s 7.3 magnitude quake that has killed more than 100 people.
The river winds through rugged Himalayan terrain in an area whose tallest peak soars over 7,000 metres (23,000 ft). Hillsides are cloaked with lush forest that would make it hard to sight the chopper that went missing after the crew was heard over the radio saying the aircraft had a fuel problem.
In Koshikhet village, a two-man civilian team was using a drone to search for the missing Marine Corps UH-1Y, or Huey as the model is better known, which was carrying six Marines and two Nepali soldiers.
“We are using infrared vision to look for hotspots and any signs of life,” said drone operator Shepherd Eaton, from GlobalMedic, a Canadian aid agency that specialises in search and rescue. Eaton and his partner wore cowboy hats, T-shirts and jeans and worked with a Nepali army team that had a helicopter.
The search, involving U.S., Indian and Nepali military choppers and a battalion of 400 Nepali soldiers, has been joined by two MV-22B Osprey, a tilt-rotor aircraft capable of taking off and landing vertically.
After two full days of searching, no sign had been found of the Huey, which was on an aid mission in Dolakha district near Tibet when it lost contact on Tuesday.
“We are still trying to locate it. There is no evidence to prove that it has crashed,” said Marines spokeswoman Captain Cassandra Gesecki.
The Huey was kitted out with a satellite location device, a radio and an emergency beacon. It may have come down in a “dead zone” for radio signals, though, making it hard for searchers to locate it.
“If it just landed in that forest, it would be lost,” said Bala Nanda Sharma, a retired Nepali army general, gesturing to a hillside from the Charikot army base from which helicopters were flying.
The death toll from Tuesday’s tremor rose on Thursday to 110, according to the home ministry.
Another 2,428 people were injured in the quake, which struck 17 days after a huge earthquake killed more than 8,000 people and damaged or destroyed hundreds of thousands of buildings in the impoverished Himalayan nation.
Prime Minister Sushil Koirala, visiting Dolakha district, said massive landslides made relief work difficult. “Still, we are fighting,” he said.
Koirala gave up his seat on his helicopter so that a woman with critical head injuries could be evacuated from Charikot to the army hospital in Kathmandu. He only flew back to the capital when it returned.
The 70-year-old woman underwent emergency surgery and was then moved to an intensive care unit and put on a ventilator.
Asked about her prognosis, an army doctor said: “We can only hope for the best.”
Medecins Sans Frontieres emergency coordinator Dan Sermand said Tuesday’s tremors caused serious damage to buildings in remote areas that had already been weakened.
“The first has done quite some damage. The second has finished the job,” Sermand said by telephone from Kathmandu.
MSF deployed two helicopters, each with two medical teams, to Dolakha to stabilize and evacuate the injured. Civilian helicopters were not asked to join the search for the missing U.S. chopper.
Home Ministry official Laxmi Prasad Dahal told Reuters on Wednesday he feared the search was diverting resources from relief and rescue operations.
Relief workers and aid were only slowly reaching remote areas, where many roads have been cut by landslides - including the single-track road along the Tamakoshi river where no moving vehicles could be seen from the air.
In Mabu village, the Nepali search helicopter stopped to find out if the locals there had any information about the missing helicopter.
“You are the only person we have seen so far,” said Bhagawat Gurung, 18, a villager, when asked whether any aid workers had reached them.
Tuesday’s earthquake, which was followed by several aftershocks, struck as Nepalis were coming to terms with the devastation from last month’s 7.8 quake, which packed a punch more than five times greater and was centred west of Kathmandu.
(This version of the story corrects paragraph five to say that GlobalMedic is Canadian, not American)
Additional reporting by Gopal Sharma and Tommy Wilkes in KATHMANDU and Douglas Busvine and Rupam Jain Nair in NEW DELHI; Writing by Paritosh Bansal and Douglas Busvine; Editing by Jeremy Laurence, Alex Richardson and Kevin Liffey