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Heartbreak & Heroism Tragedy in Nepal

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It was late morning on April 25 when Omar Havana and his wife were awakened by the sound of their Kathmandu, Nepal, home crashing down around them. “We ran downstairs as the building started to crack,” Havana, a freelance photographer, tells PEOPLE. Outside it was total chaos. “People were running and shouting and crying,” he says. “It has been one of the worst scenes I witnessed in my life.”

By the time the dust from the 7.9 magnitude earthquake had settled, the death toll was nearing 4,000 and climbing. The aftershocks were so strong they caused an avalanche 100 miles away on Mount Everest, claiming the lives of at least 18 people. Even climbers who survived the deadly cascading snow were stunned into silence by the devastation they saw once they made it back to base camp. “There was no backslapping. No cheering. No high fives,” climber Dave Hahn wrote on RMI Expeditions’ blog. “We could barely believe our eyes…. It was as if an enormous bomb had detonated.”

Back in America friends and families of those still missing held vigils both private and public, waiting for word of their loved ones’ fates. “It is incredibly disheartening to see such devastating images from thousands of miles away,” says designer Prabal Gurung, 41, who grew up in Kathmandu and now lives in New York City. Meanwhile, rescue personnel from all over the world raced to offer assistance. “Everyone is trying to help as much as possible,” says Marine Lt. Col. Jeffrey Pool, a defense department spokesman, “since time is of the essence.”