Chicagoan made hasty exit from Nepal after earthquake hit

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Dean Tatooles

It had been an incredible trip for Dean Tatooles and his group, photographing rhino in Nepal’s Chitwan National Park and Sherpas crossing the delicate suspension bridges that span so many Himalayan gorges.

Tatooles, 42, was at Kathmandu’s Tribhuvan International Airport, on board a Jet Airways Boeing 737 and waiting to take off for the first leg of his trip home to Chicago.

Tatooles, a lawyer, felt a sharp jolt.

“Initially I thought the captain may have hit the throttle by accident,” Tatooles said.

UPDATES: The latest on the situation in Nepal

And then the plane began to bounce.

“The wings were flapping up and down and almost hitting the pavement,” Tatooles recalled Tuesday. “I just remember the wings flapping up and down like a bird.”

Passengers shrieked, trays from the pre-takeoff breakfast went flying. The earthquake lasted less than a minute. The pilot quickly evacuated the passengers. In the distance, dust and smoke rose from the Himalayan foothills, Tatooles said.

The death toll from the April 25 magnitude-7.8 earthquake had surpassed 4,000 by Tuesday, with thousands more injured. Many people were living on the streets and in tents, afraid to sleep in buildings as the aftershocks continue.

Tatooles, who was leading a two-week photographic expedition to India and Nepal, said he’s worried that the tragedy is only just beginning to unfold.

“My fear is when they get into these more rural areas, it’s going to be catastrophic,” Tatooles said.

Immediately after the earthquake, Tatooles, his fellow photographers and the other passengers waited on the tarmac beside their airplane. And waited. For four hours. While they waited, his friend Christopher Mundy took a picture of the group.

Tatooles said his main concern, as the leader of the group, was to get everyone home safely.

“As fate had it, the pilot said they are going to open the airport to try to clear the commercial aircraft that are ready to go,” Tatooles said. The rest of the planes on the tarmac would be grounded.

The pilot had a 30-minute window, Tatooles said

“She pulled out of the gate area in reverse, faster than I’ve ever seen a commercial jet move,” Tatooles said. “She turned the plane around and we were on the runway before we knew it. . . . The only thing I can equate it to was like watching [the movie] Top Gun. I’ve never felt a plane take off as fast in my life.”

Tatooles had a window seat.

“As we took off, there was a sense of elation, a sense of relief and people were clapping, but that quickly subsided as people looked out the windows,” he said. “You could see dust and devastation, smoke and dust rising everywhere.”

Now that he’s finally back in Chicago, Tatooles considers himself a “very lucky guy.”

His parents, who live in suburban Inverness, are wondering if his luck isn’t running out.

“This one rocked them pretty good,” Tatooles said. “My mom is trying to ground me, but I’m 42.”

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