Photo by Jeff Vorva
Corey Ascolani talks about his adventures in Nepal at Trinity Christian College last Wednesday.
Palos Hills native Corey Ascolani drew his audience into the Nepal earthquake zone during last Wednesday’s talk at Trinity Christian College in Palos Heights, weeks after being rescued from the Himalayan country devastated by the April 25 quake.
The 1998 graduate of Stagg High School would not call himself an adventurer, but he fits the description.
A world map he showed of the places he had visited was filled with markers stretching across Europe and into Asia. He told of once buying an antique car in Vancouver, Canada, and driving it down the coast to Tijuana, Mexico.
“I just drove and let life take me where it wanted to,’’ said Ascolani,
That philosophy led him to Nepal in April.
He said that after spending more than two years teaching English in Barcelona, Spain, and traveling Europe on weekends and holidays, he felt he needed a change. He bought a one-way ticket to Nepal after hearing about Buddhist monasteries there, and the opportunity to live and work with a family for a month on an organic farm.
“It was kind of a quick decision,” said Ascolani, who flew to Nepal after a trip home to visit his ailing grandmother. He said he arrived in in Kathmandu without any hotel reservations or itinerary, and just figured he would find his own way.
Showing photos of the capital city on an overhead screen, he described the country as impoverished, without infrastructure or building codes, a main reason for the widespread destruction by the earthquake that killed perhaps as many as 15,000 according to reports.
He made friends with a Dutch man named Kase at a meditation center, and the two decided to take a 60-mile bus ride to Langtang National Park, where they met up with other international visitors for a trek. through rugged mountain valleys.
They took a break at a bamboo tea house during the trek when the 7.8 earthquake struck about noon, shaking the ground for 90 seconds. He said the epicenter was 25 miles from where they huddled for safety.
“It was the worst earthquake in 70 years. We didn’t know what to do.”
Photos and a short video he took with his smartphone during the earthquake showed people cowering under tables and tarps at the outdoor café as rocks falling down from the surrounding mountains kicked up dust around them,
“There were about 80 of us there, including 10 or 15 locals,” he said. “Avalanches were happening right next to us,” he said.
He added one local woman in the group lost her husband when he was hit by a rock, and photos showed how boulders cut trees in half.
There were 50 aftershocks in the 24 hours after the quake, he said. Sleeping outdoors or in a nearby cave, he said, “You could feel the Earth breathe, in a sense.”
Ascolani said that after the dust settled, the group members realized they would probably be there for a while, and formed teams to sort out all the necessities of life to make the best of a bad situation. Some in the group decided to continue walking, but he and others decided it would be safer to wait it out.
“We felt we were in a relatively good situation. We needed to be rescued but we had access to food and water,” he said, noting that not far away, Langtang village was “completely wiped off the map.”
He said there was some trouble with local people unwilling to sell food because their own situations were so dire.
“For two days, people at home did not know where we were,” he said.
Regular cellphones were useless, but someone in the group had a satellite phone, which allowed them to send texts to loved ones. Once the embassies were contacted, they knew help would be on the way. eventually.
In addition to setting up a system of boiling and cooling drinking water, they dug a latrine and put a chair with a hole in the middle over it. They also cleared spaces for three helipads, marking them with blue paint.
Five days passed before a U.S. Special Forces came for him and about 28 others and they were the last ones to leave. Ascolani said helicopters chartered by the Japanese and Israeli governments had come first, but only rescued their own nationals.
“There were only three Americans there, and I was afraid our government would do the same,’ said Ascolani. “I was very proud of my government when they said they said they were taking everyone.’’
Ascolani said he felt overwhelmed, “but in a good way,” when he finally arrived at Midway Airport, met by his brother Damon and other family and friends who worked to get him home.
“There is no other feeling but love,” he said, explaining how his grandmother died the day he went to Nepal, and his mother told him she was afraid she had lost her mother and son in the same month.
When audience members marveling at his calm demeanor asked if he was religious, Ascolani described himself as “spiritual.”
“Life throws all kinds of situations at you. It is how you deal with it that matters,” said Ascolani, adding that rather than planning any more adventures, he is content to stay home for a while, He is working on a fundraising project for Nepal, which can be found online at www.GoFundMe.com/nepal4relief, with 100 percent of the money raised going to Nepal.
Tom Panush of Evergreen Park, a retired Cook County sheriff, asked Ascolani to speak to members of the Seasoned Adults Learning at Trinity program as part of his “Behind the Headlines” class.