THE BLOG

How I Reported the Horrors of the Nepal Earthquake on a Smartphone

07/05/2015 17:07 BST | Updated 07/05/2016 10:59 BST

By BBC Radio 5 live reporter Nick Garnett

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I've always been one of those people who just follows the story - whatever it happens to be. My normal 'patch' spreads across the North of England. It's my job to report live on BBC Radio 5 live but this year there've been three overseas trips which have stretched my ability to broadcast to the limit.

In January, I was covering the shootings in Paris at the offices of the Charlie Hebdo magazine and in April I was sent to Malta to cover the deaths of around 800 migrants on a boat in the Mediterranean. And then, a day after I came home from Malta, I was on my way to the airport to get to Nepal where an estimated 10,000 people are thought to have died in the massive earthquake which hit the country at the end of the month.

I tend to work on my own. No producer, no technicians. Just me. I use a portable satellite transmitter to broadcast on or a smartphone which uses, in effect, a high quality version of Skype (other Voice Over IP apps are available....!) to talk live on the radio in what we call 'studio quality'.

Like an ocean-going liner, it can take a long time to change direction if there are lots of you working together whereas a single person 'team' can go where the events are more quickly and, because I do all my interviewing and filming on a smartphone, I can travel light. A backpack carried my satellite, phone, microphone and headset. There was just enough space for a notepad and a bottle of water.

Thirty-five minutes after I arrived in the country I was on air for the first time - one of around 50 live pieces on radio and TV I was to do in the next five days. Just as I was about to go live, the birds took off from the trees around me and shutters rattled on shop fronts. It was the first of over a hundred after-shocks to hit Nepal that week.

It's part of a reporter's job to see things and witness events and pass information on. Sometimes it involves seeing things I wish I could 'un-see'. The next day I hitched a lift with a TV crew and managed to get out of the capital and head north into the hills. Much of Kathmandu was undamaged by the quake but we knew the villages in the hills had been badly hit. We headed for a village in the Sindhupalchok district. We got out of the 4×4, walked round a corner and arrived in hell on earth.

In front of me, was a battlefield of rubble. It looked as though bulldozers had systematically crushed every single house to the ground. Nothing was left standing. Nothing was untouched, nothing undamaged. Local people picked through the remains of their town. They'd lost everything they owned. Amazingly, given the scale of destruction, when I checked my mobile phone there was a good 3G signal. In the middle of a disaster in the middle of nowhere. So I hit Periscope - an app on the iPhone that allows you to broadcast live video. I wandered around the village. This wasn't rehearsed - so as the scale of the damage hit me you can see my hand start to shake.

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Most events I go to are a mixture of good and bad, hope and despair. But this day was one of unremitting misery. Nothing good happened. Nobody was saved, the only people pulled from the wreckage had died days before. Homes were ruined, lives were lost, bodies found and still the people of the village were welcoming and friendly. At the end of the day a boy asked me if I had any face masks he could have as the smell of what was left behind of his home was so bad he was having trouble sleeping.

We returned to Kathmandu that night in silence. We hadn't eaten all day but nobody was hungry.

And then, the next day, I witnessed not one 'miracle' but two. Early in the morning I'd been working in an area where lots of apartment blocks had collapsed in Kathmandu. Over the busy main road I spotted a commotion. When people see soldiers running towards something there's a natural tendency to want to run in the opposite direction. Reporters tend to follow the army. In the alley, rescue workers were digging a hole two metres down below the surface. Above them teetered the remains of an apartment block. At the bottom was a 15-year-old boy, entombed in a concrete crypt. He was alive and for the next two hours as they tried to dig him out I commentated on events, almost like a football match, explaining to the audience live on BBC Radio 5 live what was happening.

The boy had managed to survive, buried alive for five days by eating butter and sucking water from a cloth. Eventually the rescue teams pulled him to safety to huge cheers from the hundreds of locals who'd gathered to witness the rescue attempt. And then, as if that wasn't enough good news for one day, a woman in her twenties was rescued from a building a few metres away. But that was the last of the 'miracle' escapes. Twenty-four hours later I was at the airport watching the search and rescue teams getting back on their planes and leaving. They knew that the rescue phase of their work was over.

The people of Nepal don't have much. Many of those I met survived with few creature comforts. Life was very different to the one I normally lead and yet I never saw any anger towards me or fellow reporters. I felt safer on the streets of Kathmandu than I do back in Britain but I will admit to being worried on my last night in the capital. It was midnight. As I broadcast in pitch black in an area of Kathmandu where every house had been emptied, where there were no street lights, no cars and only a bunch of wild dogs for company I watched two men get out of a parked car and walk over to me. I feared the worst. I was convinced I was going to be robbed.

"It's dark. It's hard to see what you're doing. Here's a torch - bring it back to us when you've finished. We're sleeping in that car over there." Bad things happen to good people.