In January 2010, a catastrophic earthquake hit the capital city of Haiti. It was one of the deadliest humanitarian disasters in history, killing hundreds of thousands of people in mere minutes. Through sheer coincidence, James and I were there, right in the middle of one of the hardest hit areas of the city. We lived, and after the earthquake, we spent three days trying to help any way we could before finally deciding to evacuate.
I originally wrote this journal entry upon my return from Haiti in January 2010 and shared it with friends on Facebook. Recently, I’ve gone back to Haiti to try to help with development and humanitarian work, and I’ve told this story repeatedly, so I decided to post it here for all to see. It was a formative experience for me, and I hope reading about it can help others find some perspective in their lives as well. On a related note, if you are interested in helping with my work in Haiti, feel free to reach out to me at (my twitter handle) (at) gmail dot com.
I’ve included a few pictures in this post that other people took of us, but my pictures are limited. If you want to try to visualize the devastation, check out these pictures.
Before I begin to tell the story, I should explain a little background. At the beginning of 2010, James and I were several years into our lives as startup founders. We had launched a product called Envolve, and it wasn’t going so well. I was depressed. James suggested we take a break and join some college friends on a trip to Haiti. He thought it would be good for us, and provide some much needed perspective on our lives. At the time of the earthquake, we had already been in Haiti for a week doing service work (electrical wiring, painting, and various other repairs) for a school in a mountain village a few hours outside Port Au Prince. We had returned to PAP the previous day, and that morning, the entire group except for James and I had flown home. I had talked James into staying an extra day so we could see the city and have a chance to explore without a guide or a schedule. Then the earthquake hit.
At 4:00 PM on Tuesday the 12th of January 2010 I was sitting in the patio / waiting area off the main building of the Wall International Guest house - a hotel for foreigners in PAP. Some Canadians had arrived. One of them complained of having trouble talking due to a cold and I struck up a conversation with her. I too had difficulty speaking due to a swollen tongue caused by an unexplained rash. Her name was Marilyn, and she was here with a group of Doctors and nurses from Canada to do some volunteer medical work in the mountains just outside PAP. They had all just arrived in Haiti. She offered to have the doctor in her group take a look at my tongue later.
I went back to reading my book. About 45 minutes later, James came down to where I was in the patio area of the main building and said I should come up to the roof of the other building to look at the city since it was going to be dark soon (The Wall House consisted of two buildings - one all sleeping quarters, and one consisting largely of cooking, dining, and offices.). I following James up onto the roof of the other building. Some of the Canadians followed us. Their doctor friend chatted with us about our various medical ailments. I had my tongue issues, and James had both a headache and stomach problems.
We had been on the roof less than 5 minutes when the earthquake hit. It lasted only about 25 seconds, starting at a low intensity and building to a peak before tapering off. It took me only a few seconds to figure out what was going on, but James took even less time. Within about 3 seconds James ran across the roof, down the stairs, across the second floor patio, leaped over the railing onto an awning, and bounced off the awning onto a palm tree to which he clung like a Koala bear for the duration of the quake. I saw his entire feat, and despite acute knowledge of the danger I was in and knowing that buildings were collapsing all around me, I could not help but think how funny James was. I took a mental note to tell James he was hilarious if we made it out. (My journal has a diagram of the palm-tree move which I have not put on Facebook).
I was not quite as quick as James, but I moved pretty quick as well and followed him part of the way. I ran to the top of the stairs on the roof as well. Out of the corner of my eye I saw the other building of the Wall House collapse. The patio I had been sitting in less than 5 minutes before was now buried under many tons of concrete. Had James not come to get my I would have certainly been dead. I followed James down the stairs, but I stopped at the edge of the second floor patio - I made a snap decision to not try to jump off the building as I thought I would be safer on top of a building than next to it.
Immediately after the earthquake ended, the sound of shaking and collapsing buildings was replaced by the sound of car alarms blaring and people screaming and crying. James shouted “We have to help people”, jumped down to ground level, and ran off to the left. First I checked on the 3 Canadians on the roof. They were shaken but unharmed, then I climbed over the railing, jumped down to ground level, climbed over the wall (whose barbed wire was now gone making this feasible), and ran off to the right looking for people to dig out. I did not attempt to dig people out of the other Wall House building as the building collapsed in such a way that I thought it unlikely anyone survived.
I’m still alive. Now what?
I immediately found two people stuck under a collapsed wall on the side of the road - a women and a girl. The women was clearly dead - her neck was crushed by the cement blocks, and her guts were spilled out of her abdomen onto the road. The girl looked basically intact, though part of the wall was still lying on top of her head. I tried to lift the wall off the girl but it was too heavy. I yelled for help, and though I got a few people telling me to leave her for dead, I was able to get help pretty quickly. I screamed as we lifted the concrete off of her. In order to move the wall segment, we had to roll the segment over onto the head of the dead women - crushing her skull. I tried not to think about this. Once the wall was moved I checked the girl for live signs. She was limp and showed no pulse. I thought briefly about trying to administer CPR - but CPR is only a temporary solution, and I knew that in Haiti no help would be coming. I decided to leave her body there and look for other people more likely to be alive to help. I ran back to the Wall house and passed James when I got there. I asked about the Canadians - as they might be able to revive the girl. I did not see them anywhere nearby though.
Knowing that time was not on our side, I sprinted off to the left of the Wall House. This was the last time I saw James for the next 7 hours. My decision to split up with James quickly revealed itself to be a bad one, but fortunately I was able to track him down later. I began looking for the “Low-hanging-fruit” - people still stuck under rubble but alive and conscious. I looked for collapsed houses, approached them, and shouted to see if anyone could hear me. I listened for answers. I also asked anyone standing outside if there was anyone in the house. (“Est-ce qu’il y a quelqu’un vivant la dedans?”)
The neighborhood we were in was absolutely devastated. It appeared to me that about 20 percent of the buildings were completely destroyed with most of the rest heavily damaged. We later described the collapsed ones as “pancaked” due to the way they fell. It was immediately clear to me that if this same level of damage was evident throughout the city the death toll would be unthinkable. I ran for quite a ways, seeing buildings of all sizes and descriptions destroyed. By this point the Haitian people were all out in the streets looking for their loved ones - as well as screaming, crying, and singing hymns. There was absolute panic in the streets.
The first living person I found in a building was visible from the street. It was a middle-aged woman who had been pinned on her stomach by her legs. Her relatives were standing in the driveway and approached me looking for my help in getting her out. I tried to go near the women to see what we could do to free her. Getting close however required actually entering the mostly-destroyed house and walking under tons of precariously perched concrete. I entered slowly, but then the ground began to shake. I knew what these were - Aftershocks! I panicked and ran out. This woman was going to have to wait.
The schoolgirl and the car jacks
The same house had another person trapped. A teenage girl was pinned near the corner of the house. She was alive and moving and still wearing her school uniform. Most importantly she was accessible without putting the lives of rescuers in extreme danger. I thought we should try to get her first. One Haitian was already trying to free her.
I ran out into the street looking for a car jack so that we could raise the concrete. I had to stop about a dozen cars and ask for a Jack before someone would give me one. Most drivers said they did not have Jacks, while some others kept their doors locked and drove off, even if I followed them for blocks banging on their windows begging for help. Eventually I found one - a small one - and returned to the house to dig the girl out. We started to jack up a section of concrete. By now other people had come to help, so I ran off in search of a second jack so we could work more quickly.
Before I found another jack I ran across another man trapped inside what looked like a collapsed storage shed. He was alive but injured. His family was in hysterics. I asked if they had a jack - they did in their car, and they gave it to me. Rather than take it back to help the first girl, I tried to show the family there what I thought they had to do to free their dad, left the jack in their hands, and moved on.
I had to stop many more cars to find the next jack. By now a couple of UN trucks were driving through. They were full of men with machine guns. They did not stop to help. They didn’t even stop to talk to me about a jack. Night had fallen by now and it was getting hard to see except by the light of car headlights. I was able to eventually stop a car with a jack. He had a bigger one - not the crumby kind you use for changing tires. I was thrilled, thanked him, and lugged it off to find the trapped girl.
I searched for a long time for the house with the trapped girl, but I had wandering far, and in the dark, in a city with no electricity, where I didn’t know my way around, it was very difficult to find anything. I ran across some people digging someone out. I set down my jack and helped them lift out the body and carry it across the street. It was a young man, probably in his early twenties. He was limp - eyes half closed - and his tongue was sticking out of his mouth just a bit. Everyone set him down and proceeded to look at me. Had I not just been in Haiti for a week I would have been very confused - but I understood what was going on. They thought that since I was white I could tell them what to do. They wanted me to tell them if he was dead. I checked his pulse - both neck and wrist - but found nothing. Besides, the body was only barely warm. At this point he had probably been dead for hours, so CPR would have been useless. I told them “Il est mort”, picked up my jack, and moved on.
A short while later someone stopped me and asked for help. They needed me and the jack to help them dig someone out. I told them I needed to use the jack to dig someone else out, but that I would come back with 2 jacks and extra help as soon as I was done. This was a promise I was not able to keep though. I never found the house with the girl in it, and once I gave up on finding it I was then unable to find my way back there to help this other guy. I am hopeful that these people escaped - their chances were good. They were alive and moving, easily accessible, and people had started helping them immediately. Besides, I was able to get that first jack to the guys help dig out the girl, so maybe that was sufficient for them to do that job.
Eventually I gave up looking for that first house - I had a life-saving jack and I wanted to make sure it was getting used. I decided to find anyone that needed help and get to work. I started asking people if anyone needed it, and pretty soon I ran across someone who said they wanted help. I followed him down the road. I was pretty exhausted at this point, so he carried the jack for me most of the way. He took me to what he said was “his house” (I don’t know if that meant he owned it, or if that meant he used to live there). It was just a pile of rubble now. The house was behind another house that was still mostly standing. When we got back there they were just finishing up digging out a woman from the rubble. She seemed ok. He told me there was another women inside - which immediately became clear as I could hear her yelling. We crawled over the rubble with only a flashlight to guide us to where she was. In order to get to her, I had to stand on top of a wall that used to be part of the first story, and lean across a gap over to where she was stuck. On top of her was the remains of the second and third story. It was an extremely precarious position. Were another aftershock to hit the wall under me could collapse, or the pile of ruble over her could collapse and kill all of us.
This woman was pinned sitting down on a bed. The floors above were putting pressure on her so she couldn’t move, and her right hand was pinned in the rubble as well. I could not see her left hand due to the lighting. The way for her to get out was a horizontal opening facing us, but the way was blocked by crushed furniture, and even if we removed that I’m not sure how we would have freed her hand. I tried to remove some of the debris in the way, but it was stuck, so I decided to try to jack up the 2nd floor section to make it easier to remove debris. I put the jack down and got to work.
Just a few seconds later another aftershock hit. My new Haitian friends holding the light made a run for it, as did I. We immediately climbed on top of the rubble and ran for the opening to get back on solid ground. Once the quake subsided I decided this one was going to have to wait. It was just too dangerous to attempt in the dark with so many aftershocks.
I asked if there was anyone else in the area alive. They said there were two missing children - a boy and a girl - next door. No one had heard from them but they thought they knew approximately where they should be. We walked outside to the road and down a few houses, and then walked back to a small walkway that led to the children’s rooms. Three Haitians and I started to walk back to where the children should be. We had to walk over a pile of rubble, but under the still-standing remains of the floors above. It seemed precarious, and part-way down I decided there was no reason all 4 of us needed to go down there. One of the other Haitians and I headed back to the opening and waited. It was the right move, because seconds later another aftershock hit and sent us scurrying up the hill. The buildings did not collapse though, and our friends inside were fine.
We waited for many minutes while the two inside called for the missing kids and tried to look through the rubble. They found no signs of life and eventually came back out. Without being able to hear them it would be almost impossible to find them in the dark, so we decided to wait on these two until morning as well.
Trying to call home
We went back out to the main road, and I asked around for a cell phone to call home. I thought by now word had gotten out and I didn’t want people at home to be unnecessarily worried. No one in the area was able to call the states though, although some people were still able to make local calls. I was told we had to find someone with a calling card (or something) and my Haitian friend with the flashlight volunteered to help me find one.
Before we left I had something I needed to do. I went back into the wreckage of the house with the trapped woman and retrieved my jack. I knew that this tool was essential to saving lives, and I did not want it to be forgotten - or worse - lost beneath the wreckage. I cannot imagine the despair felt by the trapped woman when she saw a light approaching and then saw her would-be rescuers retrieving their rescue equipment and leaving. I tried not to think about it. I left the jack with someone there that night. It was too heavy to keep carrying around, and I hoped it would get used the next morning to get that women out once there was enough light.
We headed off looking for a phone card or someone with a phone with international minutes. We walked for quite a while with no success. One of the things I noticed during this trek was that people were already capitalizing on the carnage. Street vendors were selling water and food in carts on the street, and it looked like they were doing brisk business. Eventually I decided this search was not worth the time and I headed back to the Wall House to meet up with James. I had begun to think that the situation was bad enough perhaps we should try to walk down to the Embassy tonight. Whatever we decided to do, I wanted to make sure James and I stuck together - and I regretted the decision to split up earlier.
I got to the Wall House after a long walk and started yelling for James - no response. I figured he was probably not going to be sitting outside on a street corner waiting for me, so I decided to do the most important thing on my mind and then come back and wait for him. I needed to find water. I headed off down the street in search of someone selling water (I had already found many people selling water out of jugs - but I was not willing to risk getting sick in this situation so I wanted to find bottled water.) I ran into a man on the street who offered to help me find water. We looked briefly, but soon he said we should just go back to his house and he’d give me some water. He gave me 3 bottles of water, and I gave him $20 for them.
I headed back towards the wall house again to find James, but this time I was quite lost. I wandering around for a good hour trying to get home. Along the way I saw a collapsed school, with children still rumored to be inside, a collapsed gas station, a collapsed movie theater, and many many more collapsed buildings. I took mental notes of the locations of some of these so I could return later if I was able. I also saw how the Haitians were to spend the night. Most of them had gathered together in the center or medians of roadways so as to be far away from buildings should they collapse.
I had a number of people try to help me throughout the night. I was probably the only foreigner out on the streets that night for miles around, and often times the Haitians seemed more concerned about my well being than their own. I was pleased to see this, though a little surprised. I do not know if Americans would have the same level of composure after such a major catastrophe. I did accept the help of a few of them in finding my way back, and one of them ended up guiding me back there. He was an electrician and was excited to hear I was an EE. I forget his name.
Returning to the Wall House
When we arrived back at the Wall House I called out for James several times but got no response. I was starting to get pretty concerned. I thought he surely would have returned by now. I think it was around midnight at this point. I sat down on the curb to rest. A woman from a nearby house came over and cautioned me not to sit there. I turned around and noticed the wall behind me was leaning precariously. These were the kind of mistakes I could not afford to make here if I wanted to make it out alive. I got up and went to the other side of the street. This women went inside and got me a chair to sit in. I sat and waited. A few minutes later a car drove up, and went inside the gate of the wall house. It had never occured to me that there might still be people inside the gate. I walked over there to discover the guards still guarding the gate and a large group of foreigners inside. I called out for James, and he responded out of the group. I was very relieved. I walked over to James and gave him a hug.
I learned that there had been 5 deaths at the Wall house (some other people said 4, I’m not sure which is accurate). No one had heard anything from the people inside the collapsed building so we presumed they were all dead, though we intended to look in the morning. Had I been inside reading my book I certainly would have been dead. James and I chatted for a bit. He told me that there was water here, and more guards - one in front with a shotgun, and one in back with an AK-47. He said he had been out earlier helping dig people out in the area, but he had not wandered far from the wall house. I described what I had seen to James and the Canadian doctors.
James wanted to see first hand what was going on so we’d be ready to act in the morning. I took him outside and down the street towards the house where I had left the jack. He quickly saw what we were dealing with. After only a few minutes we ran across an ambulance that was stuck on some overhead electrical lines. A man walked up to us with a missing finger and blood covering his left hand. Another woman came up to us and asked us to help her husband. We explained we were not doctors and moved on. We saw a UN van and knocked on the back window to ask for medical help. They waved us off.
About a block later another aftershock hit. Screams of panic gripped the streets as people got up and ran to safer ground. Moments later, a two story house on the other side of the street creaked, groaned, and finally crashed to the ground. These people were going to have to be on their toes all night long.
James had seen enough. We headed back to the Wall House and lay down on some box springs in the parking lot. I shared my box spring with some Haitian guy I had just met. It was quite uncomfortable, and my body was full of adrenaline, so I barely slept at all. I was occasionally awoken by aftershocks, or by trucks passing by. By morning I was exhausted.
We got up about 6 AM. The first thing we did was check over the collapsed building and look for signs of life. We looked for holes and yelled for anyone inside. No one answered. We could not see much, and we didn’t see any areas likely to have space inside. Next we headed into the still-standing building where our room was. James and I went in one at a time to retrieve our essential items. I picked up my backpack full of clothes, and James grabbed his suitcase which had money and his phone inside. We left everything else inside - we did not want to spend any more time inside that unstable building than we had to. We stashed our luggage in the yard, and headed out looking for people to dig out.
I wanted to find that house I had lost the night before. The girl inside seemed like she had the best chance of making it out, and I thought it wouldn’t be far away. We never did make it that far, because we ran across another trapped victim after walking only a few minutes. A couple of men were standing on top of a collapsed house and talking. We stopped and asked if we could help. There was a 2-year-old buy named Sebastian trapped inside. They could hear him crying, but they did not know exactly where he was. Three other people had been pulled from this building minutes before, and this boy was thought to be the last person left alive.
There was a Haitian man there that spoke some English - a welcome rest after a week of speaking in French. He was a family friend of the people in the house, and said that Sebastian was “like a son” to him. He pointed out that the rest of the family was across the street, because they were too shaken to be able to work effectively. We set to work right away trying to get the boy out.
There was a large opening in the roof on one side that seemed to go towards the sound of crying, but we couldn’t get far before that way was blocked. We determined our best route would be to go from the top, directly through the concrete. The first thing we did was clear off debris from the roof as well as the water tanks and anything else heavy. We wanted to reduce the chances of cave-ins while we were working. Then we picked an already broken area and got to work opening up a hole. Some neighbors had brought hammers. We hacked at the concrete a piece of a time, slowly breaking up the roof and hauling it out a piece at a time. It was slow and tiring work. After a while we had gotten the hole open far enough we could poke our heads in and listen. Sebastian was still crying, and we were close. It looked like there was some open space down there, and sound of the crying seemed to me to be coming from farther down the roof. I looked for another way in.
There was a break in the roof a few meters away. We had initially discounted this opening as it seemed too far away from the sound of crying, but judging by what I had just heard I thought it was worth a shot. I could see some maneuvering room inside and decided to try to go down into the hole. I told everyone to clear the roof (and told James to make sure no one came up on the roof) and climbed down into the whole. Climbing into the wreckage of a collapsed building is an experience I can’t really describe. At any point there could have been an aftershock, or I could have bumped a supporting piece of debris, or I could have fallen through the debris below me. My heart was racing. I wanted to find out what I had to and get out before I killed myself down here. I found the remains of a door that was blocking my way. I went back to the hole and called for a hammer, and James passed one down. I went back to the door and started to hack my way through. Breaking through what could be a supporting part of a collapsed building while inside it was not something I wanted to be doing, but I thought it necessary. Fortunately it did not collapse, and I managed to break through. There was some space behind it, but behind that there was the remnants of a collapsed wall. This was a dead-end. We’d have to get to Sebastian some other way. I headed back to the surface.
We enlarged the first hole we had made a bit more, until James thought he could fit. Once again we all cleared the roof, and this time James went down inside, and we all waited nervously. He resurfaced moments later. He had been able to fit down in the hole, but once inside he was unable to maneuver. We wanted to continue expanding the hole we had made, but there was rebar in the way and we didn’t have any tools with which to cut it, so we started punching through in another place.
Sebastian stopped crying and started wheezing. We knew we were short on time. Using the new hole we had made we determined that Sebastian was probably directly beneath the first hole we had made, beneath some solid concrete blocks. We worked on breaking through those blocks, but it proved to be a very difficult task, as we had to be extremely careful not to let any of them fall through and land on him. We used a combinations or ropes, pipes used as crowbars, and hands to brace the concrete while we broke it up and hauled out the pieces.
Partway through this task, I decided to try to make myself useful in other ways. James had a good handle on everything, and there were too many people on the roof for my comfort (some other neighbors had come up to help). I decided to go try to grab the Canadian doctors and see if they could help the other injured members of this family. I walked back to the wall house to find them packing into a car. They were the last of the foreigners to leave. They said the embassy had told them to get out. From their expressions they seemed ashamed to be running. I was distressed they were leaving as they were so badly needed here, but I did not protest. Instead I asked what else I could do with the injured. They told me how to get to the Doctors Without Borders clinic nearby and headed off. I grabbed some water and returned to the house we were working on.
Soon after I returned James and the others had finished removing the last major chunk of concrete. Everyone cleared the roof again James went inside to find the boy. He came back up a little while later looking very somber. He could reach the boy from the opening if he lay on his stomach on the concrete blocks inside, but the boy was dead. He wanted me to double check this. I was not enthusiastic about doing so, but he insisted, so I went over, crawled inside, and took a look. They boy was pinned face down by his legs directly below the hole we had been working on opening. His hands were cold. He had no pulse either in his wrist or in his neck. He did not respond to touch. We had not heard any noise from him in probably an hour. I came up and told everyone I thought Sebastian was dead too. Everyone was upset but maintained their composure. They thanked us. I wanted to leave, and James and I left for the Wall House. I did not want to stay for the news to be broken to the family.
The US Embassy
Upon arriving back at the Wall House, we found all of the other foreigners gone. Some of the Wall House staff was still in the parking lot, and they had a car there. We asked them to take us to the Embassy. They said they couldn’t because the roads were blocked, but that they could take us to the airport. We grabbed what was left of our luggage and climbed in. I threw out some more clothes so I could fit water in my bag.
The drive to the airport was relatively quick, and along the way we saw more of the same devastation we had come to expect. On arriving at the airport it was clear that it was closed. There was police tape outside, and the control tower clearly had lost all of its windows. Hundreds of people were sitting outside in the sun waiting. We got out and decided to go up to the Embassy. We were unsure why our driver said he couldn’t take us, but we got directions from the Brazilian UN troops at the airport and set off on foot.
By now my legs were dying. I had walked probably 15 miles in the last 24 hours and I had barely slept. We stopped at a gas station to get more water and rest, but it was closed. Moments later a Haitian taxi (a car one this time) pulled up and offered us a ride. We told him we’d pay $20 to get to the Embassy. He agreed and we headed off. It quickly became apparent why our previous driver had said we couldn’t get there. The Embassy was a bit out of the city, and all the people fleeing PAP were clogging the roads to the point that the traffic wasn’t moving at all. I’m glad we were in a taxi, because he didn’t let traffic stop him. He drove on the sidewalks, through alleyways, and took “shortcuts” that probably weren’t roads. After maybe 20 minutes of the scariest driving I’ve ever seen we arrived at the Embassy. James tipped him an extra $10 and we got out.
The US Embassy in Haiti is an absolute fortress. It has its own water, power, and air conditioning. It’s surrounded by a giant wall with armed guards. After coming from the poor and destroyed city the Embassy seemed completely Alien - like someone had transplanted an office building from Wisconsin into the middle of this poor tropical island. It had manicured lawns, hedges, flower gardens, and in every way possible screamed “America”. Our US passports got us through security, and then an embassy official met us and escorted us back to the consulate area where all the other refugees were waiting.
We can’t stay here
What I saw next I was completely unprepared for: hundreds of Americans sitting in an air-conditioned lobby doing their makeup, complaining about the disaster, and watching Crisis in Haiti on CNN. James and I looked at each other and knew right away we could not stay here. This was the dream, not the mess outside. We filled out some paperwork to notify our families of our status, and filled out a form that would enable us to get evacuated later. We asked several embassy officials if they needed any volunteers. They told us they were overwhelmed and that all rescue efforts were focused on aiding Americans and they had no resources to spare on the Haitians. We asked if we could leave the Embassy, and they told us they recommended we did not but could not legally detain us. James and I drank some water and rested a bit. We then grabbed several water bottles and headed out.
At this point we were a long ways from our hotel, but we thought we could make ourselves useful pretty much anywhere in the city. We started walking back down the road towards the airport into some slightly nicer and less densely populated neighborhoods. We saw a great deal of destruction here as well, but not as bad as where we had been before. We gave away some water to the people there. I made James stop giving out water though, as I was worried we would not have enough for ourselves, and I did not want to be caught dehydrated in these conditions. We walked around these neighborhoods for several hours looking for people buried but still alive. We did not find anyone. A number of people asked us for food or medical help, but we did not have anything to give them.
Around 1 PM we decided to try to head back into the center of the city. Time was precious, and it appeared the need for digging people out was not as dire down here. We waited by a curb until a car pulled up and told us to get in, so we did. The car was owned by some man looking for his wife. His two kids were in the front seat, and several of us were riding in the back. We asked him to drop us off by 19 Delmas (near our hotel). Along the way he pulled into a UN compound and had an argument with the UN soldiers on duty. I do not know what the argument was about. Our driver clearly had some sort of security clearance. He left the UN compound angrily and took us to where we wanted to go. We thanked him and got out.
We walked up the hill towards the Wall House. I was looking for the school I had found the night before. I figured out that we had gone the wrong way and instead we were in front of a house where I had left someone the night before. We went inside to see if she was still there. Happily, we discovered she had already been rescued. We headed back into the street to find my Haitian friend from the night before waiting there. He said she had been pulled out alive and tried to give my jack back to me. I told him to keep it and I would come back and get it if needed. It was too heavy to lug around unnecessarily and I was exhausted.
Doctors Without Borders
We headed to the Doctors Without Borders Clinic just a few blocks away to see if we could lend a hand. The “clinic” was a small two story building with a metal fence out front keeping the crowds out. No one was allowed inside the building due to fear of aftershocks. Some people were inside the metal fence in the yard, but the vast majority of patients were lying in the streets - hundreds of them. People had brought them in on stretchers, and mattresses and doors. Some had been able to walk. Others had been carried. The injured, dead, and dying lay everywhere. What we saw here looked nothing like anything I’ve seen on CNN since. There were no cots, no thermal blankets for the patients, and no funny little medical tents. This was the real dismal reality for the majority of Haitians - and not something I have yet seen shown on TV in the US.
Almost immediately upon arriving we were greeted by a Haitian doctor named Richard. He asked for our help and took us inside to get supplies. We put on medical gloves and carried some supplies outside. We had iodine, saline, gauze, bandages, cotton balls, pain killers, a razor blade, medical tape, and we had collected cardboard to use for splints. Richard took us back out into the street to the area where he had been working.
We worked with Richard for the rest of the day. He would look at a patient, and once he was through he’d tell us to sterilize, bandage, and splint the wounds. Initially James and I worked as a team, but later we split up to cover more patients. We became quite adept at sterilizing and cleaning wounds and at splinting using very little supplies. For the vast majority of patients, splinting, sterilizing, and bandaging was all that they could do. They had no resources to set bones or do surgery. They had no drugs. It became apparent that our role here was simply to buy these people time - stave off infection and stabilize the wounds so they would live long enough to see a real doctor.
The Haitian people quite literally thought we were doctors. They did not notice us fumbling with the bandages, or having to run back to Richard to get further instructions from time to time, or the fact that we were clearly very distressed doing this work. They only saw that we were white, and that we were wearing medical gloves. They’d surround us while we were trying to work and say “Docteur Docteur” and beg us to look at their son / cousin / friend. We tried to tell them we were not doctors, but that seemed to make no difference. Eventually I gave up trying to tell them because I did not want additional people mobbing Richard. He was already surrounded by people and was having trouble doing his job.
I’m not going to attempt to talk about all the patients here. Between James and I we treated many dozens of people. I do remember some quite well though. One girl had a shattered forearm and hand. I had her sit down on a curb so I could dress it. Someone had already done a sloppy job of dressing it using a piece of wood and some not-sterile bandages. I had to remove tape that was directly on the wound. It caused her alot of pain. I used up my very last bandages wrapping up her hand. She also had injuries on her legs, face, and back that in America would have made any parent anxious. Another man had a foot that had been pretty badly mangled. I had to try to wash any dirt out with saline, but found I couldn’t get some pieces clean. I ended up using my razor blade to cut off some sections of skin so I could clean it. I thought the skin was dead but it turned out it was not. He squirmed in pain but said nothing. I can only imagine what would happen if a non-doctor had performed minor surgery on someone in the US. Given the circumstances though I did not see any other choice. Another girl had a slightly bashed in face. She was walking around, but I did not know what to do for her. I tried to get a real doctor to come take a look but they were all busy. I kept telling them to wait, and eventually they disappeared. I do not know if someone helped them or if they gave up and left. Another woman had two broken legs. I had to lift sterilize them and then splint them with cardboard. I had James help me left the legs so we could get the splints underneath. There was a boy who had a deeply cut leg to whom I gave my last painkillers. There was a women with a cracked skull and exposed brain.
Running out of supplies
Around dusk we started to run out of supplies. First we ran out of painkillers. Then we ran out of bandages, so we used bedsheets. Then we ran out of gauze and iodine. Without disinfectant there was nothing we could do for these people. Richard used up the last of his supplies and we left together.
Our first stop was the Wall House. We knew they had water there and had long since used up our water supply. When we got there we found the rest of the staff just leaving. They kindly gave us some water - two packets each - and we drank it immediately. Our next stop was the house of Richards cousins. He wanted to show us the house because there were still 5 people buried inside, and he wanted us to come back in the morning to help him. I did not understand why no one had dug them out during the day. The rest of the family was sitting in front of the house on lawn chairs. Why had they not helped?
During our walk we discovered that Richard was not actually a doctor, but rather a 3rd year med student. He was in his late 30’s. In America had a med student and a couple of random engineers acted as doctors they would have been thrown in jail. In this situation we were thanked profusely for the tiny amount of care we were able to provide, because for the people we treated we were the only option available to them.
We stopped at a few gathering places along the way and Richard checked on some of the injured. His plan was to go to the nearby Haitian hospital and try to get some supplies. We’d then come back to some of these places tomorrow and try to treat the injured. We also stopped at Richards house. His roommates had a car and we were hoping we could get them to drive us back to the Embassy. We offered to pay them for a ride back to the Embassy. They said it was too dangerous to drive anywhere at night and that we should stay there. I do not know what they were afraid of, but James and I were quite sure we wanted to get back to the Embassy that night.
The hospital of death
After a long walk and several stops we arrived at the hospital. The images of this hospital have been burned into my brain. This was not a hospital - it was a morgue. Bodies lay everywhere. They covered the lawn, the steps, the entry way, and the courtyard inside the hospital. There were no doctors in sight. Most of the people there were dead. Most of the rest were dying. Family members hung around hoping help would arrive. Richard stopped to look at a boy at the request of the family. The boy was already dead, but the family did not want to believe it.
We found no supplies and without them we could not help anyone. At some prodding from us we got Richard to leave. We needed his help in getting back to the Embassy. In front of the hospital we met an off-duty UN official. He flagged down a taxi for us, and proceeded to threaten the taxi driver that if we did not make it back to the Embassy safe he was going to hunt him down. I do not know what he was worried the taxi driver would do to us. He took down the taxi drivers ID and license number, and he gave us a card we could use to contact him if we got in trouble. (I still have it. His name was also Richard).
Back to the embassy
The taxi took us back to the embassy. It was a bit of a scary ride, but after seeing what we had very little could shake us. After arriving at the Embassy and passing back through security, I put on new clothes and threw away my old ones. They were covered with blood spray and I did not want to get anyone sick. I washed up and drank some clean water. We saw some of the people there we had seen that morning - a group from the Wall House, a group of American doctors, as well as embassy staff.
It was clear by our attire when we returned what we had been up to. Besides, we had told the staff we were leaving the embassy that morning. One of the employees, knowing what we were doing, took pity on us and tracked down a bit off food. She gave us the cracker and pretzel packets from an MRE. It wasn’t much, but it was all we had eaten in a day and a half so we were grateful.
We got to talking with some of the doctors there. One of them put disinfectant on the various wounds I had acquired while digging through rubble. She and her friends were interested in helping out, and they had brought supplies with them. They thought they would need to be evacuated though, as they wanted to stay together as a group and most of them wanted to leave.
We went outside briefly to catch some fresh air. I found a USAID worker and probed her about what sort of aid was coming in. It was clear they had not been outside the compound walls yet and she was eager to get information from us - specifically regarding what supplies were needed by the doctors in the city. I gave her a list and then she sent me back to talk with someone higher up to give them additional intelligence. We went to the back of the compound to speak with “Dr. Macintire”. One of his assistants got out a map and we showed them where we believed the hardest hit areas were, as well as where the DWB clinic was, and the general area where we thought Richard’s cousins were buried.
We slept at the embassy that night - or tried to. We had to sleep on the floor with no blankets or pillows. After sleeping about an hour I was woken up by screaming and yelling as an aftershock hit. Everyone ran for the door and we went outside. The embassy guards would not let us back inside as they did not think it was safe. We ended up sleeping on the lawn. I was freezing and didn’t get much rest.
The next morning we waited around until we could get information about evacuations. It sounded to us like there were two flights going out, one at 9:00 AM and one at 12:00. If those were the only options to get out, then we would not have time to get up to meet Richard, help him, and return to the Embassy in time. We sent him a text message saying we would not be able to make it. We waited around until the 9 AM group was shipped off to the airport. They were supposedly going to be flown out to Santo Domingo. We could have gone on this flight but volunteered to stay behind. We were hoping that we’d be able to find later transportation and then have a chance to do some additional work. Even if we couldn’t we thought we’d let everyone else get out first given that we were still healthy.
Helping where we could
After they left we helped clean up the Embassy since more people would be arriving shortly. While doing some cleaning, James came and grabbed me. He said that they needed help with some of the injured Americans. I followed him out the door and hopped in the back of a pickup truck. Some of the American doctors were there as well. We drove a short distance to another side of the compound where the critically injured Americans were waiting.
The critically injured were being evacuated by air to Guantanamo Bay (we think). They were being held outside while waiting for the helicopter. It was our job to set up shade for them, to keep them hydrated, and to move patients around as needed. There were a half dozen injured Americans, all of whom had been dug out from building wreckage. The care for these American patients was completely different than the care we had given to the Haitians the previous day. They had shelter, water, thermal blankets, real doctors, and medical supplies, not to mention they were being flown to a fully functional hospital.
We stayed here for a couple hours. At one point a French doctor named Gina from a hospital down the road showed up. Her driver was ill from dehydration and needed some help. I asked her who in the region needed some help. She said the children’s hospital down the road almost certainly needed us. I gave her $100 cash knowing that she could put it to good use (I did this after berating James for giving away money earlier as I was worried we’d run out of cash… there are no ATM’s in Haiti. Sorry for the hypocrisy James!).
The injured Americans were eventually evacuated by US military troops to the airport for transport. I was impressed by the US military guys. They were fast, effective, and organized. They seemed to be getting things done. This seemed to me to be in stark contrast to the UN troops who in the previous two days had hunkered down in their APC’s armed to the teeth and refused to help anyone. Previously we had tried several times to stop UN trucks either to offer our assistance or to ask for help, but they wouldn’t even talk to us. The UN troops did seem to be good at taking pictures though. They all had their personal cameras out as they drove around the ruined city.
After the injured people left, we were driven back to the Embassy. We learned there that there would probably be evac flights later and if we stayed we would likely not be stranded. We therefore picked up water and gathered medical supplies from the American doctors who were there to take out to the children’s hospital. These supplies had been intended for a village hospital but never made it that far, so they gave them to us instead to take down to the Children’s hospital down the road. There were 3 full boxes of supplies including bandages, slings, antibiotics, gauze, and sterilizers. I tied a shirt around my head to keep the sun off since we were already sunburned and we headed off. There was a women named Nina who was with the group of doctors who wanted to help too, so she joined us.
The children’s hospital was only a short distance away and it did not take us long to walk there. This children’s hospital was a huge improvement from what we had seen before. They actually had tents for patients, and doctors, and supplies, and they seemed to be somewhat organized. When we arrived there was an NBC film crew there and they filmed us giving the supplies to a doctor on duty there. James then headed back to the Embassy to pick up the rest of the supplies and I offered to help. One of the doctors took me over to an area where I would be able to bandage and sterilize patients like I had done the day before. I waited there for him to come back with a table for me to use. While I was waiting the NBC crew came back and wanted to talk to me. I gave them a very brief interview. It was clear they had only been to this hospital, the airport, and nearby areas, and that they had not seen any of the badly hit areas yet.
The doctor did not return with a table quickly so I set off to make myself useful. I found the head of the hospital, an American from Pennsylvania named Rick. He said he needed help and showed me what needed to be done. They needed a series of tarps hung in order to expand their growing outdoor hospital. They weren’t allowed to let anyone inside the building due to fears of aftershocks. I set to work right away, and when James came back he helped as well. We got a half dozen tarps hung that afternoon before heading back to the Embassy. James went back first as he was getting sick (headache I think?) and I followed a short time later. Nina only ended up staying a few minutes and James had to escort her back to the Embassy.
We had come back from the hospital partly to rest, and partly to rehydrate, but mainly to get additional information about transportation. By this point the Embassy staff knew who we were and were looking out for us. The woman who had snuck us food the night before had reserved some seats for us on a flight Friday morning to ensure we could continue our work and still be able to get out. The other embassy staff knew who we were and got in the habit of waving us through security and letting us move freely around the compound. (We were storing our gear in a separate room, and we were now regularly communicating with the American doctors there who had set up a make-shift clinic to treat American wounded.)
Knowing that we had transportation out in the morning gave us new energy. We rehydrated ourselves, gathered more water to take with us, and rested for a bit. Then we headed back out to the children’s hospital. When we arrived, Rick, the administrator, was quite happy to see us. We gave him one of our water bottles (he said he was quite thirsty) and asked him what we could do to help.
A somber duty
He needed us to help bury the dead. He asked if we were ok doing this. James and I looked at each other and answered yes. Somehow after all we had been through doing something this gruesome just seemed like something natural that had to be done.
We were given plastic gloves and body bags (we also later acquired some medical face masks), and three other Haitians with a truck took us with them. Our job was to drive down the road to a hospital in the east of PAP and pick up 12 bodies. We were then to take them to graves to be buried. James asked if we should try to take any photos of the dead for loved ones to recognize them. We were told not to. I took some comfort knowing that if someone was brought to a hospital alive, it was likely that their families already knew their fates. We were also told that a journalist had already photographed the bodies earlier.
Upon arriving at the hospital we met a white man with a shirt that read Intelligence Branch. I am still not sure who he was or why he was there. After further research I’m guessing he was either CIA or with the Canadian armed forces. He spoke English, and clearly knew what he was doing. He directed us to where the bodies were. After seeing the two of us (James and I) he said “I guess you boys have seen a lot haven’t you”. He understood what we’d been going through. I’m sure he was surprised to see a couple of American kids out at night in eastern PAP coming to collect the dead.
Moving the bodies was one of the most disturbing and difficult things I’ve ever had to do. I had to pause from time to time to look away and not throw up. The one thing that saved me was that this experience was so unbelievable and so different from my normal life that I think my brain hadn’t really accepted it as real. Touching a dead body is a disturbing experience in itself. They are cold, and the joints don’t move easily. Moving the bodies proved to be physically difficult. Some of them were quite heavy. Many of them were covered in blood and we had to be careful to avoid contact when possible.
The bodies were lying on a hillside outside the hospital. They had been placed there rather haphazardly. It was clear that the hospital was overwhelmed and that respect for the dead had been given a low priority. Some of the bodies were wrapped in sheets, others were naked, some were piled on top of one another. We moved 12 bodies in total I think, though I did not count carefully. We moved men and women and boys and girls of all ages. I remember one was a police officer, a couple others required 4 people to lift. Still others required just one person to lift. I knew that each of these bodies represented a life that just a couple days before had no end in sight. I learned right then and there that we really can die tomorrow - it’s not just a saying.
After the bodies were loaded in the back of the truck (a Tap Tap actually - a modified pickup truck) we all got in. James rode in the cab because his eyes were hurting. (I think it was stress and emotions rather than anything physical). I rode in the back with the bodies, and tried not to think about it. When we got to the cemetery we found the gate locked. We drove around to one side and found an industrial business with lights on and trucks driving in and out. The Haitians with us talked with the people at the business and eventually we found out what we had to do. We lifted the bodies from the back of the truck into the scoop of a bulldozer. We had to lift some of them with “Un, deu, trois!” and heave them off the truck because they were so heavy. Once the bodies were in the dozer they were going to be put in a dump truck, and then driven to a mass grave and dumped. We did not see them dumped into the ground, and that was fine with me. We headed back to the children’s hospital.
After arriving we removed our gloves and masks and sanitized our hands. We told Rick we’d come back to continue helping and headed back to the Embassy to get cleaned up. On arrival we found our American doctor friends. They tracked down some of the US Embassy staff who got us access to the showers. We cleaned up a bit, and I again threw away all of my clothes. I was now down to my last pair of pants. We had been given an MRE earlier before we went to the hospital which we had saved. We ate it hungrily. It wasn’t much, but it was the most food we had eaten now in more than 2 days. I ate the imitation ribs and James had the packet of clam chowder.
After we ate we rested outside a bit. We met another embassy worker there who filled us in on what he thought some of the root causes of Haiti’s problems were. We talked to him for a while. Then, just before we were ready to leave one of the embassy officials ran up to us. She had a flight leaving immediately and it had 2 spots left on it. We could take it if we wanted. I was somewhat torn by the decision. I wanted to stay and help, but at this point we had no food, no place to stay, no clothes, and we were both sick (I had had diarrhea now for a day, and James had both that and a headache). On top of that we were both exhausted and sunburned. We also thought that significant help would probably be arriving in the next day, so we had already done our most crucial work. Had we been able to get someone to give us a place to sleep, food, and a promise of future evacuation I would have stayed. We had tried to get USAID to do this for us but they told us to take the evacuation.
We accepted the evacuation. I gave our final box of supplies to the military guys in the embassy (we had a few more supplies we were going to take down to the children’s hospital), we gathered our stuff, and we joined the group of evacuees heading to the airport.
The rest of the story is not as important. Once in the care of the US Air Force we were treated extremely well. They flew us to an AF base in New Jersey where my brother came to pick me up. I then caught a plane back to SFO from JFK. It was both a welcome sight as well as a distressing sight to see the food, cots, and help provided by the US Air Force. We badly wanted them, but it was heartbreaking to know that there were hundreds of thousands of Haitians who needed them more and would not be getting them.