Hafiz Mohammad Shamshul Haq, the imam of the Madani mosque in central Kathmandu, spent the morning of April 25 doing what he always did on Saturdays: after giving some private Quran lessons to children, he returned to the mosque for a nap. Around the time that Haq bedded down on the floor of the mosque’s prayer room, Rajendra Bhatta, a science teacher in his 20s, was finishing a meal with a friend at a restaurant in the Sitapaila neighborhood on the city’s outskirts. Next door, pastor Bir Bahadur was leading a prayer service at his church with 30 to 40 members of his congregation.
As these and other lives unfolded aboveground in Nepal, powerful forces were shifting below the earth’s crust. Forty million to 50 million years ago, two giant pieces of land–India, then an island, and the sprawling mass known as Eurasia–collided, driving up the awesome peaks of the Himalayas. Down below, under what is now Nepal, the crash tore open a bleeding geological wound where two slowly moving slabs of rock–the Indian plate and the Eurasian plate–continue to collide. These movements generate energy that steadily gathers until one day, when there is a sudden, large shift in the plates, that energy is rapidly released in the form of seismic waves that ripple out, shaking everything in their path.
Experts had been warning for years that it was a question of when, not if, Nepal would be hit by a significant earthquake–a big one to match the 8.1-magnitude disaster that struck in 1934, killing over 10,000 people in Nepal and the eastern Indian state of Bihar. So when Nepal shook that Saturday from the force of a 7.8-magnitude rupture, “it was no surprise whatsoever,” says Susan Hough, a seismologist at the U.S. Geological Survey.
No surprise to the seismologists, perhaps. Shortly before noon–as Haq snoozed, Bahadur neared the end of his service and Bhatta used the washroom while his friend waited outside the restaurant in Sitapaila–violent tremors destroyed ancient Hindu temples in Kathmandu and triggered deadly avalanches around Mount Everest. The epicenter was some 48 miles (77 km) northwest of the capital. “This is the earthquake we’ve been waiting for,” says Hough.
The tremors, which killed over 60 people in northern India and at least 25 in Tibet, were followed by powerful, panic-inducing aftershocks. Near Everest, at least 17 climbers died in a roaring avalanche. The death toll throughout Nepal has been rising steadily, exceeding 5,000 by April 29. That number is likely to rise further as the impact outside Kathmandu becomes clearer–and it is one that included Bhatta, who was crushed when the restaurant in Sitapaila collapsed.
Bhatta’s body was recovered by an Indian rescue team that arrived in the country hours after the earthquake, part of a wave of international teams that rushed into Nepal to help with relief and rescue operations in Kathmandu and the villages beyond, where many have been totally cut off by landslides. The earthquake destroyed many of the fragile infrastructure and communications links around what is one of Asia’s poorest countries. Entire villages have reportedly been flattened, with 8 million people affected, according to the U.N.–about a quarter of Nepal’s population.
Though efforts had been made to help Nepal strengthen its defenses against a major natural disaster, the earthquake-prone nation struggled to prepare. “People have been trying for a long time to improve preparedness and resilience, but they’re resourcesstrapped,” says Hough. Some 2.5 million people now live in the Kathmandu Valley, a figure that has been growing by roughly 4% per year, making it one of the fastestgrowing urban regions in South Asia. New building codes were introduced in 1994 to stop the spread of shoddy constructions prone to collapsing too easily. But they were never enforced properly.
And it’s not just the ground beneath Nepal that’s shaky: a bloody, decade-long insurgency by Maoist rebels claimed around 13,000 lives before it ended in 2006. Soon after, the country’s monarchy–the target of the rebels–was abolished. Before and after, bickering among the country’s leaders touched off a series of minicrises. “We have had no political stability,” says Nishchal N. Pandey, director of the Centre for South Asian Studies, a Kathmandu-based think tank.
The gaps in preparedness were apparent in the immediate aftermath of the quake. Only one of the six operating rooms at the national trauma center in Kathmandu could be used the day after the quake, as stocks of anesthesia medicine and other supplies ran low. In Sitapaila, the tools needed to tackle what was left of Bahadur’s church only arrived with the international rescue teams late on Saturday. By Monday morning, just one man, a member of Bahadur’s congregation, had been pulled out alive, along with at least nine bodies. There was no word on Bahadur or the others who attended the service.
But even those lucky enough to have survived the quake are still in grave danger. Up in the rural districts northwest of Kathmandu, premature rains and the monsoon that arrives in two months could cause flooding and the spread of waterborne diseases, says Jamie McGoldrick, the resident coordinator for the U.N. in Nepal. “We won’t get a building program in these areas for some significant time. And so people will maybe have to spend three, four months in a tent.”
Haq, the imam, says he’s been praying for his country’s recovery ever since the quake. Jolted awake by the tremors, he felt as if the floor beneath his body were floating on angry waves. Outside he saw the Dharahara, the lighthouse-like 19th century watchtower that stood directly opposite his mosque, burst open at its base.
All morning, scores of tourists had been going to the nine-story tower to catch panoramic views of the city. As the quake struck, Haq saw chunks of the tower crash to the ground, where many more visitors were waiting to go up. “It fell, and everything went dark,” he says, describing the moment a large section hit the ground, crushing a busy Indian-food stall and sending up clouds of dust and debris that blocked out the sky.
Haq fell to the floor. When he got up, all that was left of the Dharahara was a 30-ft. (9 m) jagged-edged section of the base that looked as if it had been bombed, surrounded by chipped bricks. The paint had been blasted off by the force of the tremors. Still, says Haq, “we were lucky.” The Dharahara had been rebuilt after being damaged in previous earthquakes, including the one in 1934. The imam is praying that it–and Nepal–will rise again.
–WITH REPORTING BY RISHI IYENGAR/HONG KONG, DEEPAK ADHIKARI/KATHMANDU AND JUSTIN WORLAND/NEW YORK.
This appears in the May 11, 2015 issue of TIME.