BHAKTAPUR, Nepal — A team of the United States’ most renowned search-and-rescue workers drove into the shattered city of Bhaktapur on Wednesday, having traveled to Nepal from Fairfax County, Va.
They brought with them sniffer dogs trained to detect live bodies, acoustic and seismic listening devices designed to pick up noises from entombed victims, and engineers capable of cutting through six-inch walls of reinforced concrete. Their goal was straightforward, said Capt. Mike Davis, the team’s manager.
“We are going out there to look for human life,” he said.
The members of the disaster assistance response team, from the United States Agency for International Development, drew stares, with their buzz cuts and neon hard hats, as they mounted the hill into the 15th-century city. But the next three hours brought a slow deflation, as they bumped into other international crews and one resident after another told them there was no one to save. The ruined houses were mashed wads of brick and mud and wood, leaving no space that could allow a trapped person to survive.
One tip seemed promising — a collapsed five-story concrete building — but a Pakistani military team was already scouring it.
A white-haired man approached Captain Davis, bowed his head and joined his hands together in prayer, pointing to the place where his 26-year-old son, Amin Sainju, was buried when his house collapsed. But Amin was presumed dead, and Captain Davis explained, through a translator, that the team was tasked with finding the living.
“We could be at the end of that window,” he explained in an interview. “But we have got to try.”
By Wednesday, four days after a 7.8 magnitude earthquake rocked this impoverished country, the death toll had risen above 5,200, and recovery and relief efforts had become a long, hard slog. Newspapers made much of the story of Rishi Khanal, 27, who was rescued on Tuesday after being trapped for around 80 hours in the debris of a hotel where he had been eating lunch.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Mr. Khanal described drinking his own urine for sustenance and banging with his hands on the rubble around him until he caught the notice of a French-led rescue team.
In Bhaktapur, a city about seven miles from Katmandu, though, people’s entreaties had a numbing sameness. They wanted tarpaulins, food and water. And they wanted help recovering the dead.
Lt. Col. A. R. Rana, a Nepali army officer, named four countries that had sent search teams into the city in the last several days. He said no one had been found alive in the city since Monday, and international teams should take on more practical tasks.
“They are all doing the same thing,” he said. “They are sending people who want to get live bodies.”
With tens of thousands of people living in tents in parks and fairgrounds, frustration is building. Several hundred people blocked traffic Wednesday in Katmandu, the capital, complaining that they had not received any aid and demanding transportation to their villages. Reuters reported that a group of around 200 villagers in Sangachowk, a hard-hit area about a three hours’ drive from Katmandu, used tires to block a highway so they could stop trucks filled with food and relief materials headed for the district headquarters.
Signs of life were returning in many places. In Bhaktapur, which was deserted just two days ago, families returned in great numbers on Wednesday, and some people were balanced precariously on three-story piles of bricks, trying to extract and dust off family photos.
Vikas Jamban stood in a square with a few friends, watching first a 20-person detachment of the Blue Sky Rescue team, a group of volunteers from China, and then Captain Davis’s crew. Mr. Jamban said that he had also seen Indian, French and Polish crews pass through before the Americans, and that he was counting on International aid organizations to provide services that the government had not.
“Up until four days we have nothing to eat, no water, no electricity, and my house is broken,” he said. “The Nepali government, I don’t know what they’re doing.”
John Tung, a structural engineer who travels with Captain Davis’s team, was eyeballing the narrow pink-brick houses around him, some of them hundreds of years old. Judging from the visible slant on the first floor of the houses that remained standing, he said, around 30 percent were unstable and could fall if there was another strong aftershock.
“We saw a bird sitting on the side of one building,” said Blake Payne, a software engineer who serves as a technical specialist for the team. “The bird took off, and a brick fell.”
Nearly three hours had passed since the team had arrived, and Captain Davis was in a hurry to move to a neighborhood where there was a greater likelihood of finding survivors. He was still being trailed, a little mournfully, by Radesham Sainju, the father who had hoped someone would uncover the body of his son, but that would not happen: The elite response teams follow guidelines set by the International Search and Rescue Advisory Group, which confine them to rescuing the living until the country’s government has declared the search over. Even after that, they almost never recover dead bodies.
“If you tried to recover all the dead bodies, you might leave live bodies to die,” said Bill Berger, the U.S.A.I.D. disaster assistance response team leader in Nepal. “We only have so much bandwidth to the search-and-rescue team, so they have to focus on getting live bodies. That’s always got to be the priority.”
But that, Mr. Tung said, does not make it any less frustrating to walk away from a place without having found any sign of survivors. They had come so far.
“Yes,” he said. “It’s a little hard to handle.”
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