KATHMANDU — The smiling dragons guarding Kathmandu’s Shangrila orphanage took on a tinge of sadness Tuesday as staff members salvaged what they could from the now-condemned building.
The resigned head of the orphanage, Wim De Becker, said the building just north of the city center will have to be torn down — a small price to pay for keeping his young charges safe following Nepal's devastating earthquake.
“We are alive and we all have our health,” De Becker told NBC News, as rescuers in other parts of the city dug bodies out from the rubble. “We can’t ask for much more than that.”
Despite the damage, De Becker has allowed senior staff members into the building — which now leans dangerously to the left — to bundle up the few books, toys and other possessions belonging to the home's 80-or-so residents.
The children of Shangrila — whose ages range from one-and-a-half to the late teens — immediately knew what to do when the quake struck on Saturday.
“They were really brave,” he said, adding that the kids had undergone practice drills for such an event.
The children congregated in a field behind the house as the earth shook and nestled under a makeshift tarpaulin tent while aftershocks rocked the city. De Becker said that the group had planned to spend a second night under the stars until a thunderstorm struck, drenching everything and everyone.
De Becker said the group ran to the Kadhampa Buddhist Foundation monastery across the road, where he banged on the door until the monks let them in.
The group took shelter there under a covered awning in the monastery courtyard — and have been there ever since.
The children have hung their backpacks on trees lining the courtyard and their toothbrushes fill a single cup, each bearing a sticker with a name on it.
Amid the tragedy around them, former residents of Shangrila have come back to the place they once called home and sought comfort with the group.
"We are like family"
“I immediately knew I had to come here,” said Sano Rai, 21, who now works for a local fashion designer. “I just needed to see that everyone was safe.”
Sumi Thamang has spent 12 years at the house.
“We are like family,” said the 17-year-old who — like several of children currently at Shangrila — still has living relatives.
Because of that, De Becker said, some of the youngsters have been able to return to the care of relatives since the earthquake.
While he said he was hopeful that the group could stay at the monastery for another week or so, De Becker said he was working on a longer-term solution for the 60-or-so children who remain.
Despite the devastation around them, De Becker said the children were "doing really well" and staying occupied.
"Most of them think it’s a lovely camping trip,” he said.
NBC News' Henry Austin reported from London.