Rice alums safe after Nepal quake

Eric Jean and Della Hoffman

Eric Jean and Della Hoffman are interviewed on April 30 by ABC's Good Morning America after their rescue. ABC photo

Della Hoffman, Eric Jean rescued after five days in stricken village

Two Rice University alumni, Della Hoffman and Eric Jean, are safe after being stranded five days in earthquake-stricken Nepal.

The Denver couple, both 2005 graduates from Will Rice College, were nearing the end of a yearlong journey when they were caught in the devastating April 25 quake that killed thousands.

They were two of the three Americans among a group of 27 stranded hikers flown by the U.S. Embassy from Bamboo Village, in the Langtang area of Nepal, to a military base in Dhunche April 30.

The Americans then flew with consulate staff to the U.S. Embassy in Kathmandu. They were interviewed on ABC’s “Good Morning America” the same day, and the Rice Owls baseball cap that Jean was wearing prompted comments via social media about his connection to Rice. An interview with Hoffman and Jean about their experience also appeared on Time.com.

“They’re now in Kathmandu – sleeping, presumably,” said Hoffman’s mother, Peggy Cuciti, from Colorado. “They’re at the embassy at least this first night; then I think they’re on their own to figure out the next steps.”

Hoffman told ABC she and Jean were taking a break from the trail at a teahouse, “and all of a sudden the earth started to shake.”

“I don’t think we even knew what was happening until some of the villagers ran out of the hut and then, immediately after that, the boulders just started coming down from both sides of the canyon, including into the village and on top of the houses,” she said.

‘I don’t think we even knew what was happening until some of the villagers ran out of the hut and then, immediately after that, the boulders just started coming down from both sides of the canyon.’ — Della Hoffman

Cuciti said the travelers “sort of ducked under a table” until the rocks stopped falling.

Hoffman told ABC: “I stood up and did nothing for a minute, but then I actually hid under a table, which in retrospect seems a little silly with how big the boulders were.”

In another report, Jean said a villager 20 feet away from them was hit by a rock and died.

Jean told the network the couple followed villagers to a cave, but there wasn’t enough room for everyone. He and Hoffman found a rock face to cling to until the tremors and rock fall ended.

Their families didn’t know the couple were safe until a full 24 hours after the initial quake, Cuciti said. An Israeli trekker in the group that congregated near Bamboo Village had a satellite messaging device and “managed to pass text and email addresses, one for each of the people stranded in the group,” to her mom in Israel, who reached out to the families.

Several Israeli and Japanese hikers, including the woman with the communicator and an American, Kathleen Nolan of Delaware, were flown out by Israeli rescuers three days after the quake. Nolan told NBC News the trekkers in Bamboo Village knew debris in the trail would make it nearly impossible to hike out, so they had constructed a helicopter landing pad “and with red flowers made a big ‘H’ so that we would be seen.”

The rest of the hikers were flown out two days later. Jean, a software engineer with a B.S. in computer science, called his mother, Dallas resident Donna Jean, from the embassy at 3 a.m. April 30 to confirm he and Hoffman were fine.

‘Knowing that they were at a particular place and they had constructed some helicopter pads made the State Department much more sympathetic…’          — Peggy Cuciti

“Just to hear his voice was such a relief,” Donna Jean said. “I said, ‘Well, how was it when the earthquake happened?’ And he said, ‘The moment was pretty dang scary.’

“They were a half day out on their hike and had stopped for lunch with a group of other people. And where they had just been, rocks were falling. But where they were was out in an open area, which was a good, safe place to be.

“He said they were with a great group of people, and it sounds like they worked together and figured out a water purifying system,” Donna Jean said. “They made two small helicopter pads and one large one down on the beach and really worked together well to survive.”

Once they knew precisely where Hoffman and Jean were, the families began contacting congressmen and the State Department to push for a rescue. “Knowing that they were at a particular place and they had constructed some helicopter pads made the State Department much more sympathetic to the idea,” Cuciti said.

Rep. Ted Poe, R-Texas, contacted the State Department for assistance at Rice’s request. “The president’s office at Rice did reach out to us,” Cuciti said. “I know (senior assistant to President David Leebron) David Vassar put a word in through some of your congressional delegation and they have been taking steps in other ways to see what help they could provide, so we were quite gratified. Other friends from Rice days were also utilizing their contacts on Della and Eric’s behalf.”

On the other side of the world, Nolan was applying pressure as well. “I feel like it was the American who was there (at the embassy) who really pushed to get our group rescued, for which I’m thankful,” Donna Jean said.

Cuciti said the hours until the first message from their daughter were hard, but their knowledge of Nepal helped. “My husband and I had done the trail 35 years ago, so we were somewhat familiar with the area,” she said. “We knew it was not the worst area to be in, based on our recollections.

“Della told me on the phone they were grateful Eric had insisted on stopping for that tea, because had they been a little further up the trail, they would have had a harder time protecting themselves from the rocks.”

She said the couple have not yet decided whether to come straight home or to complete their planned route. “This is their 11th month of travel and they were getting a little tired anyway,” Cuciti said. Hoffman, who has a B.A. in anthropology and teaches middle school students in Denver, wanted to be home in time for graduation. “Most of her students are refugees from Nepal and Burma, and that was part of her interest in this trip,” her mother said.

The toll on Nepal saddens Cuciti. “I’m just so sorry,” she said. “For me, Nepal is this incredibly vivid, wonderful memory, and I was hoping it would be likewise for them. And of course, it will be a very mixed memory.”



About Mike Williams

Mike Williams is a senior media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.