Rescue and relief teams who flew in to the nearest airport, Bagdogra, faced a perilous and gruelling 125 kilometre (80-mile) drive along the Siliguri highway to Gangtok, the state capital of Sikkim and headquarters of the quake emergency operations.
Every few kilometres, the convoys of vehicles were forced to stop and, aided by soldiers and villagers, clear the road ahead, as torrential monsoon rains threatened to trigger further landslides.
Stretches of the route were lined by locals and townspeople who had evacuated their homes and were too scared to return because of multiple aftershocks that followed Sunday’s 6.9-magnitude quake.
“We just had a landslide right here,” said village shopkeeper Karma Mantor. “We are still in a state of panic. Nobody knows what is really happening.”
Manju Karma Parjor, who runs a small bakery, stood in the road with her arms draped protectively around the shoulders of her two young sons.
“I didn’t send my children to school today because it’s on a hill. I have heard reports that several boulders have fallen on the road and I didn’t want to endanger their lives,” Parjor, 36, told AFP.
“We have been waiting for information. We just see these army people crossing the roads, but no one stops to tell us about the damage,” she added.
The two-lane state highway is a narrow squeeze at any time, but negotiating stretches hit by rockfalls was particularly hair-raising, with only inches to spare as vehicles skirted a sharp drop on one side.
It was an especially tight fit for trucks carrying rescue teams and relief equipment flown in from New Delhi.
With road-clearing operations starting in full force on Monday morning, the line of vehicles edging their way up to Gangtok numbered more than 100.
In the town of Rangpo, south of the state capital, residents said they were desperate to contact relatives in Mangan, in north Sikkim, close to the Nepal border where the epicentre of the quake was located.
“I have family up there and I’m worried,” said Namiya Tsering, 24. “We haven’t been able to establish any contact with them.”
The quake cut off power to most regions of Sikkim and telephone land lines were interrupted, while panicked people flooded mobile networks making communications erratic.
The landlocked, Himalayan state of Sikkim, which borders Bhutan, Nepal and Tibet is a remote region, with no airport of its own.
Emergency operations usually require helicopters, but heavy rains and low cloud closed the helipad in Bagdogra, making the highway through Siliguri the only viable access route to Gangtok.
However, Home Secretary R.K. Singh told reporters in New Delhi that one team of doctors and paramedics had managed to get air-dropped into Mangan.
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