The first Canadian Forces plane bearing relief supplies landed in earthquake-ravaged Nepal Wednesday, stopping briefly in Kathmandu before taking on a small group of Canadians and Americans and flying them to India.
The C-17 Globemaster touched down shortly before sunset, filled with boxes of Red Cross tents as well as vehicles and supplies that will be used by a reconnaissance contingent of Canada's Disaster Assistance Response Team.
The plane's departure several hours later with 96 evacuees capped days of tension among travellers angered at their treatment by local Canadian diplomats. A few dozen Americans allowed onto the flight, meanwhile, were elated that Ottawa would fly them out for free, on a plane filled with bearded trekkers and families wrangling strollers, all seeking safer ground.
The death toll in the quake reached 5,200 as of Wednesday and injured nearly twice as many.
The Canadian flight marks the first of what may be as many as seven trips, as Ottawa prepares to send road-clearing equipment, medical expertise and soldiers to a country still struggling to take stock of this weekend's disaster.
Canada has yet to decide on the extent of its involvement in Nepal, an impoverished country whose spectacular Himalayan vistas have made it popular with tourists and trekkers. But it's gearing up for a potentially large deployment. "I can imagine seven-plus" aircraft bringing supplies, said Lieutenant-Colonel Edward Izatt, commanding officer of DART.
He was part of a small joint military-civilian assessment team that spent Wednesday in Kathmandu speaking with government, military and United Nations officials, and expects to report back to Ottawa in a few days.
Their report will inform the size and shape of the Canadian response, which is likely to focus on an area some 70 kilometres northeast of Kathmandu, although the final decision is in Nepalese hands.
"Right now, they've asked for light engineering support to help clear rubble for people to get on with their daily lives, get vehicles moving and get access to more remote locations," Lt.-Col. Izatt said.
The need for help was obvious even on the flight in, when Christopher Gibbins, a senior foreign-affairs official on the assessment team, looked down to see villages transformed into rubble piles that "looked like a gravel pit," he said. "Just the whole thing, tabula rasa."
Canada potentially faces military hardware limitations to its response, however. Helicopters have been a critical tool for delivering postearthquake aid to remote hillside settlements. But in Nepal, home of Mount Everest, such aircraft must be able to operate at high altitudes. It's not clear Canadian aircraft can do that.
Distance is another problem. The first flight left Trenton, Ont., on Sunday and did not arrive until Wednesday evening after stopping in Cologne, Germany, Kuwait and Delhi. Subsequent flights are expected to take 48 hours for a one-way trip.
They may also be used to evacuate additional people from Nepal, where dozens of quakes have struck fear in travellers, some of whom have complained that Canada has done too little to help.
A small group who took refuge on the grounds of the Canadian consulate in Kathmandu after the Saturday earthquake were first fed and welcomed with electricity and Internet access – then told by the local honorary consul-general they could not stay overnight on the grounds there. Instead, they found refuge at the American Club in Kathmandu, where they were housed in giant tents and provided with cots, blankets, food and water.
"I'm so impressed. I'm so grateful," to the Americans, said Kaitlin Bull, a 22-year-old who lives in Calgary. I
In contrast, the Canadians left her "really pissed off," although she was happy to be leaving after a traumatic few days. "Some people are saying, 'Oh, I think it's a good experience.' And it makes me mad. Thousands of people have died and been hurt and affected. It's not a good experience."
Other Canadians complained that they were evacuated to Delhi, where they had to pay for their own hotels and flights back home. Nearly 200 European citizens, by contrast, were evacuated to Belgium on a pair of flights. Communication from Canadian officials had been so poor that some Canadians didn't know they had the option to evacuate Wednesday, said Simon, a 23-year-old recent microbiology graduate from Montreal, who declined to give his surname.
The consul-general, Nepalese Dr. Buddha Basnyat, declined comment when The Globe and Mail visited the consulate Wednesday, saying he was too busy and not authorized to speak.
But anger against Canada seemed exclusive to Canadians. Others saw heroes in the Maple Leaves. Canada let 33 Americans onto the evacuation flight Wednesday night, among them Ted Smith, 35, and Dominique Arellano, 30, who were in Nepal as part of a long vacation.
The U.S. typically declines to take people out of places where commercial flights are available – and numerous airlines are flying regularly scheduled service into Kathmandu. So the couple were thrilled at the free flight out on the Canadian C-17, snapping pictures and selfies as they took seats inside the cavernous aircraft. "I love Canada!" said Ms. Arellano.
"This is great," said Mr. Smith. "When I get back home, I have to go up to Canada, drop a couple dollars and say a couple thank yous."