Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Hispanola is a Bird (title to be explained later) #1

I can't sleep. Tomorrow will mark the second week since an earthquake forever changed the lives of everyone in and around Port-au-Prince.

When the earthquake hit at 4:50pm, Tuesday the 12th, I was in the MCC office/guesthouse. Everyone had left for the day, and I was sitting down to write a couple of e-mails when it came. At first it felt like intense nausea. I hung on to the ironwork that surrounds the porch area of the office and rode it out. Having experienced a pretty strong earthquake in Seattle back in 2000, I quickly figured out what was happening, but was still baffled. Natural disasters come with the territory here, but they're usually weather-related. After the shaking stopped, the first thing I noticed was a rising cloud of dust everywhere I could see. I ran around the house to survey the damage: a bunch of broken glasses on the kitchen floor; the library turned upside-down; water gushing out of a broken pipe in the tank on top of the house; the wall that separates the back yard from the ravine behind it simply disappeared.

Immediately, everywhere, shouts rose up. People waved their arms around and screamed, desperately, "Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Thank you God!"

No, it wasn't sarcasm. It was, from what I could tell, two things - thankfulness from those that were spared, and a surrender to the second coming of Christ. And in those first disorienting moments, I was ready for anything, and wouldn't have been much more surprised to see the sun blotted out of the sky. It felt biblical indeed.

But soon enough I felt able to focus my thoughts and I went to speak to the people who live in the rickety lean-tos in the ravine behind the house. Looking through the huge gap where the wall had fallen into the ravine, I asked them if anyone had been hurt. They said no, thanks be to God. "Are your houses okay?" "Yeah, they're fine." and sure enough, everyone's houses looked fine. I could hear people wailing in every direction, but at that moment I saw very little destruction, only a large dust cloud that continued to rise and dissipate. I thought to myself, maybe it wasn't so bad.

I went up on the roof and plugged the hole in the water tank with a felt-tipped marker wrapped in a t-shirt. I tried making a few phone calls, but none would get through. The same exact thing happened after the Seattle quake, so I knew it was no good trying after that. I grabbed my backpack and prepared to head out on the motorcycle and check up on everyone. Right after I put on my helmet and locked the front door, J, our Haitian administrative assistant came running through the front gate. He was hysterical. He was weaving around, as if no longer in control of his tiny frame, clutching his bible in one hand. He was alternately speaking to God and wailing in anguish for his family that he had not yet seen and for whom he feared the worst. It was almost as if he didn't see me, but he came towards me all the same and his legs gave out from under him as soon as his head collided with my chest. I sat down on the driveway and held him like a child. He spewed out a dreamlike narrative of the utter destruction that he had seen.

After maybe 15 seconds, I told him that we would go immediately to his house and make sure that his family was okay. We took off on the motorcycle and were soon driving through shell shocked crowds, and everywhere people with their arms in the air and faces turned upwards. The road was littered with cinder blocks from fallen concrete walls. Here and there were wrecked cars, already abandoned. As we neared J's house, we drove by what used to be a large, beautiful hotel. Only a third of it remained, and a boy was dragging a lifeless woman out of its parking lot towards a growing, awe-struck crowd. The sense of nausea and disorientation came back in force and J amped up his semi-coherent rambling.

A minute later we were at his house where he collapsed into the arms of his wife and two kids. Thankfully, they showed no signs of injury. I said goodbye and took off towards the apartment building where one of our team's couples lived, the one closest to downtown. Now on major streets, there were wrecked cars everywhere, giant buildings reduced to rubble, fallen trees, and downed power lines. I can hardly believe that I made it through the surging crowds of people, almost all of which were trying to get up the hill and away from the city center as quickly as possible. It was very dark except for my own headlight and the illuminated cellphones all around. At times it seemed like there was no way to get down the hill against the rush of people, and yet even turning the motorcycle around seemed impossible, so I pushed on with a lot of honking and apologizing. Eventually I arrived in what was my old neighborhood. I gave J and R this apartment so that they could be walking distance to work. I came around the corner and saw, in the place of what used to be a five-story building, a pile of concrete no more than twenty feet high. My old apartment, J and R's place, had been a corner unit on the fifth floor. My heart sank. I stopped the motorcycle and ran to the nearest person and asked him if he'd seen a white couple in the area. "I saw an older white woman being pulled out of that building there," he said pointing in the direction of J and R's place. "You're sure she was old??" "Yes, white hair."

I scrambled up to the top of the building, standing on that same spot of the roof where I used to go to watch the sun set over Port-au-Prince bay. I shook and staggered and screamed J and R's names as loud as I could. I felt like I was dying. I thought of J and R's parents, and how they might not even know yet that there had been an earthquake in Haiti. I got down on my knees to see if I could hear anything. A baby's cry came out from somewhere under the concrete.

Just then a man came climbing up on top of the building. He was shirtless and carrying a hammer. He asked me if I could come help him. I told him that my friends might be in this building. He said that yes, they might be there, but we had no way to know, and there was someone pinned under rubble in a building a block away, and that we could save him. I think this man is the closest thing I've seen to an angel. His name was Theodore. He was calm, but insistent that I come help him save someone who wasn't a friend or even an acquaintance of his. Just a total stranger. And he kept referring to the trapped man not as a man or a person or a victim, but as a life. "We have to go now, we can save a life."

"But can't you hear that baby crying?"

"Yes, this building is full of people. We'll come back. But right now we can go and save a life."

I still don't know how to feel about what I did next. It's as if the distinctions between all people were erased. I am personally responsible for some 23 national and international staff, and at this point I only knew that one of them was safe. And where I was standing at that moment, I could hear a baby crying under the rubble. And yet I stood up and told Theodore that I would follow him, because we could save a life.

We walked across the roof of the building and down the other side and up the street to another collapsed building that before the earthquake was almost identical to the one where J and R lived. Sure enough, there was a man, lying on his left side, with his right arm and right leg pinned under a mess of concrete and rebar. The man was calm and coherent, definitely in shock. Theodore began hammering away. He asked me to take off my t-shirt and put it over the man's face to protect him from flying bits of cement. We were positioned right at the bottom of a big concrete avalanche waiting to happen. Every ten minutes or so another tremor would come and we would stumble down the side of the building to safety, wait a few seconds to catch our breath, and then climb back up. I don't know how long we worked to free the man, but it was probably about 90 minutes. After a half an hour, we all exchanged names. Other people came and went from time to time, sometimes shining a flashlight so we could see what we were doing. After about an hour, both limbs were still pinned. His right arm was clearly broken in several places. When we dug out his right leg so that we could see almost to his ankle, we realized that it was another person's arm that was wrapped around his foot. This was the final obstruction. At one point I was yanking on this arm as hard as I could, literally trying to free this one life from the grip of death. When we finally got him free, we carried him down to the street, and laid him out.

I told Theodore I had to go and he said he wouldn't be far behind, but that he had to make sure the man got some medical attention. I ran back to J and R's building. The baby was still there crying. It seemed to be coming from under a smashed, sideways refrigerator. I don't know if it was a really cheap refrigerator, or if this was one of those super-strength adrenaline moments, but I ripped that refrigerator apart with my two hands. Then I was lifting big chunks of floor and rolling them off the side of the building. Soon a few other guys joined me. A woman began screaming for help. I told her to save her strength and that I knew where she was and that we were coming, but she just kept screaming. After digging for maybe 20 minutes we lifted a huge slab of concrete and could see into a space under a section of floor the woman on her back with a tiny baby almost perfectly upside-down against her waist. I laid down on the floor slab and reached down and under and got a single hand grip of the baby's onesie and pulled him out using the other hand to cradle his head. He was by all appearances unharmed.

Well, shoot, that felt good to get down in writing. But it's late now, and my computer battery is almost dead. I'm still sleeping outside, as is everyone I know. The aftershocks just keep coming, at least one each day. But we're all feeling phantom aftershocks every now and then too.

I guess I'll have to tell this story in a few installments.