Quetta Earthquake – May 31, 1935

Quetta is 5,500 feet above sea level and is located in a very mountainous area about fifty miles from the Afghanistan border.

At 3 A.M. on May 31, 1935, the city of Quetta was devastated by a severe earthquake of magnitude 7.7, lasting about thirty seconds, followed by many aftershocks. This city, at 5,500 feet above sea level, is in Southwest Pakistan, about fifty miles from the Afghanistan border. It was razed to the ground by the earthquake and more than 30,000 people lost their lives. Quetta, in 1935, was part of India and was ruled by Britain.

British military officials immediately arranged to clear away the debris of the earthquake so that ambulance convoys could transport the injured to local dressing stations. At the same time groups of soldiers began to dig out the victims who lay under the ruins of their homes. There was little contact with the outside world as the telegraph center had been destroyed so Quetta had to cope on its own with the disaster.

Before the earthquake, Quetta had been a British military garrison since 1876 in the area that was called Northwest Frontier. Twelve thousand soldiers were stationed there to cope with the conflicts that emerged from time to time with local warlords. Its name comes from a local dialect meaning “fort.” In order to accommodate the soldiers their residences were constructed in a multi-storied fashion. When the earthquake struck, these buildings collapsed and many lost their lives as they came down.

When reconstruction began after the earthquake all buildings were single storied. The officer in charge of the garrison was Lieutenant-General Sir Henry Karslake, an experienced frontier specialist. His quick action both in rescue work and in reconstruction prevented an outbreak of disease. May is a hot month in Quetta and bodies had to be buried before decomposition set in.

Within three hours of the earthquake, that is to say between 3 A.M. and 6 A.M. on May 31, Karslake had divided up the devastated area into sections, allocated a group of soldiers to each section and told them to do everything possible to save lives and help the injured. They rescued people from the debris, moved in supplies, kept law and order, ran medical services, and set up a refugee camp on the open ground.

Much of the work was done before breakfast! Only a military organization could have done it. The dead were laid out on the side of the road and collected in carts for burial and a separate group of soldiers had earlier been given the task of digging graves. Rescue work went on steadily throughout the day. By 8 P.M. it was dark and everything stopped.

Long before the evening the men were totally exhausted. It had been a very hot day and they had worked continuously since early morning, for the most part with nothing to eat. They had to wear medicated pads over their mouths and noses owing to the danger of disease from dead bodies and the odor hourly became worse.

The pitiful requests of the survivors, who could do nothing to help themselves, and the sight of the dead bodies added to the strain of the day’s work. Christians were buried in one place, Muslims in another, and Hindus burned their dead at any convenient location. A major problem was the question of what to do with animals. The city was full of cows and water buffaloes, and most of them had calves. Karslake had the injured shot.

During the first day or two, when everything was disorganized, young people from local tribal areas came to Quetta. They knew that beneath all those bricks thousands and thousands of rupees and valuables were buried. The large majority of native people kept their money in a box under their beds rather than trust the banks. Martial law was declared, which meant looters could be shot on sight, and soldiers were posted on the outskirts of Quetta to stop thieves from coming in. By June 12 all British women and children had been moved to temporary accommodation elsewhere along with thousands of refugees and over ten thousand injured men, women, and children.

Some were taken by air but most went by rail. In retrospect, the Quetta earthquake of 1935 represented a landmark in India’s history. For the first time, serious and systematic efforts were made in the design of earthquake-resistant methods of construction. The use of reinforced concrete at different levels in buildings dates from the experience of the Quetta earthquake. This and other actions taken in 1935 became the model for earthquake response in all the other earthquake-prone regions of India.

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