Towson resident Nikhil Talati might have been among the first in America to learn of the powerful earthquake that devastated northwestern India and killed thousands nine days ago. Within minutes of the 7.7 temblor, he was getting an eyewitness account from his wife - by phone.
Yesterday, Neha Talati shared her experience with about 200 worshippers who gathered at the Greater Baltimore Temple in Finksburg to pray and to raise money for earthquake victims.
By the end of the day, members of the Hindu temple had raised more than $53,000, organizers said. Volunteers came from throughout metropolitan Baltimore to help package clothing and blankets for shipment to India this week.
Two weeks ago, Neha Talati, 28, had traveled to the home of her husband's family near the city of Ahmedabad for a wedding. Her husband was unable to attend but called to wish everyone well the morning of Jan. 26, the day the quake hit. She described the destruction.
"Everything was moving - the road, cars, power lines," she said. "You could see houses shaking, and we were 300 miles from the epicenter of the quake."
The couple, reunited a few days ago, prayed yesterday at the Carroll County temple. "Help us, and give peace to us. Give us strength to be united and to help everyone," they prayed in Hindi during the two-hour service.
"I feel so lucky to have her back," said Nikhil Talati, 30, assistant director of telecommunications at Goucher College.
"If I had not called then, I would never have gotten through," he said. A few hours after their long-distance conversation, as news of the earthquake spread, telephone lines became overloaded.
Yesterday, Neha Talati recalled terrifying scenes. She saw rescuers digging without a break, trying to save trapped victims. The only way to extricate a 2-year-old from the rubble was to amputate her hand.
"Her parents had to sign their permission," she said.
Many families at the Hindu temple yesterday said it was days before they heard from family members in India.
Minesh Shah had to wait more than two days to learn that his cousins had not escaped their high-rise apartment building. He finally talked to their children Friday.
"Every family here is hurting," said Yogesh Desai of Reisterstown, who has several relatives in Ahmedabad.
"I dialed nonstop for two days," said his wife, Jagruti Desai, eager for news of her parents and younger sister.
She learned that they were alive but homeless. She said she expected they would find help.
Estimates of the death toll climb hourly, particularly in villages that can be reached only by helicopter. Yesterday, officials in India put the number of people killed in the quake at about 16,000.
"India has the manpower, but it needs high-tech equipment, medical supplies and rescue teams with dogs," said Nikhil Talati. "Whoever has survived, we want to keep them alive."
Looking at photographs of the devastation, Gaurang Patel said, "That is what I saw, and I am still feeling it."
Patel, 30, returned to Catonsville this week after visiting his parents in Ahmedabad for a month. He had been packing for his flight back to Baltimore, when the violent shaking began.
"I was leaning on a wall and holding my parents," he said. "It was hard to keep my balance. The shaking continued for at least two minutes. No one would go back inside for hours, and people took turns sleeping that night. They wanted to make sure at least one person was awake and could warn them."
He made his way into the city, hoping to help. But the police and military had cordoned off most areas.
"I felt so helpless," he said. "We could not save lives. We had no machinery."
Yet, all through his parents' neighborhood, people cooked meals for survivors and opened their homes to them.
"They were preparing food for 20 to 30 at a time and calling families, telling them to come and stay with them," he said.
The aftershocks continued for two days. An aftershock hit when Patel was retrieving his passport from a bank in the basement of a 10-story building.
"People left everything open with all their valuables and just rushed outside," he said.
On his plane home, he learned that several passengers were from Bhuj, a desert town near the epicenter where nearly all the buildings were destroyed.
"They had only the clothes on their backs," said Patel.
Information: 1-800-301-5594 or www.baps-care.org.