Dispatches from Haiti: Earthquake aftermath

Personal stories about the impact of last week's massive earthquake, from Washington Post correspondents on the ground in Port-au-Prince and elsewhere in Haiti.

Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2010

6 p.m. Unloading supplies on a precarious pier
At the crippled port, men in dug-out canoes and leaky skiffs rowed passengers out to the Trois Rivieres. Out came bananas, rum, boxes of condensed milk, and in went people waving fistfuls of wet Haitian dollars.

The seas were calm, but there was a sense of panic, of last chances.

Out in the hazy distance lay the hospital ship the USNS Comfort. In the harbor, all three of the cranes used to bring commerce and life to Haiti are crippled or submerged. The big one leans into the sea, useless.

There is only one functioning pier. It looks stable, but it is not. U.S. Army diver Sgt. Joshua Palmer says he and his men have examined every piling, and the news is not good. Many are splintered at the tops, tipped with frayed rebar where there should be solid concrete. It is not yet clear if the pier can handle the weight it needs to bear. "I'm just a grunt, but I don't know. There's a lot missing under this pier," Palmer said.

The Americans weren't happy that a French naval vessel, the Francis Garnier, had docked. They weren't being competitive. They were being cautious. The French ship and its cargo could have tipped the pier over like a empty paper cup.

One of the Navy divers said, "Put on your life preservers." He wasn't kidding. Nearby, the civilian engineer for the Navy had made a pendulum out of a piece of string, a twig and a weight -- a half-full plastic eye dropper. He told a sailor to keep an eye on it.

"If it starts to swing, run," he said.
--William Booth in Port-au-Prince

4:54 p.m. Unable to stay alive in Haiti
Maxo Osnac Dantica was "a casualty of two countries," said his cousin, writer Edwidge Danticat.

In the fall of 2004, he fled Haiti with his father, the Rev. Joseph Dantica, an 81-year-old Baptist minister whose church had been set afire by local gangs. They arrived in Miami, asked for asylum and were taken into custody at Krome Service Processing Center, a federal immigration detention facility.

Soon after, when his father became violently ill and fell unconscious, Krome workers accused him of faking his symptoms. Maxo Dantica was brought in to try to talk with him but was crying so hard that he could not speak.

Belatedly taken to a hospital, his father died a day later, shackled to a hospital bed.

Maxo Dantica was released on his birthday, the day after his father died, and stayed in the United States for a time pursuing an immigration case, but an old drug conviction was getting in the way. About three years ago, he returned to Bel Air, overlooking downtown Port-au-Prince, and took up his father's work, running the church school and raising money for neighbors who needed help. Last Tuesday, when the earthquake struck, Dantica, 61, raced down a flight of stairs in the church compound. The school building and apartments collapsed on him.

Each day, his wife and cousins, homeless and staying out of the city, returned to the site, "lifting one rock at a time," said Danticat, the writer, who lives in Miami. On Wednesday, they found part of his remains.

"He wasn't able to stay here, and he wasn't able to remain alive there," said Danticat, who was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship last fall.

Amid the destruction, though, the church still stands.
--Amy Goldstein in Washington

4:43 p.m. 'I don't know what we are going to do'
The aftershock Wednesday woke up Charles Mario's family, who like most people in Jacmel have been sleeping outside since last Tuesday's earthquake.

In the La Kobat neighborhood of shops, homes and art galleries on narrow streets next to the ocean, most of the buildings were destroyed.

The neighborhood now is strung with caution tape, with rope holding up makeshift homes constructed from tarps and colorful sheets, and the tattered remains of garlands for Jacmel's famous carnival, which is supposed to be happening now.

When the aftershock rumbled, people cried out, dogs howled and roosters crowed. And Mario wondered what to do with his family.

"I've got five children. My mother. My sister. My niece. In my house -- but I don't have a house," he said, standing in front of the crumpled-up home with his family spread out on blankets and chairs around him on the street.

His mother was badly injured last Tuesday, but the hospital was so overcrowded, with people crammed under tarps in a small courtyard, that they sent her home. He doesn't know how she can sleep in the street, with a big gash in her head.

The aftershock only made their home more shaky, he said.

"I don't know what we are going to do."
--Susan Kinzie in Jacmel

4:02 p.m. For best friends, a final ride home

Sue Frame sat on a blanket at the side of the tarmac Wednesday morning with a bandana pulled up over her mouth and nose and a white body bag covered in flies at her side.

Inside the bag was her best friend, and she was waiting for a U.S. military helicopter to take him back to the United States, where his parents were waiting.

Frame opened her friend's dusty passport to show his photo: Flora Raven McGarrell, a 35-year-old artist with dark hair and intense eyes. They met 16 years ago at the Maryland Institute College of Art, which is holding a memorial for him in Baltimore this evening. They were in Baltimore performance-art group Little Big Bang together, lived together, survived a fire together, lost everything, found it.

McGarrell ran the nonprofit art center Foundation Art Center of Jacmel (FOSAJ) for the past couple of years.

Frame came to Jacmel two weeks ago, and last Tuesday afternoon, they went to the new hotel in town, the Peace of Mind.

They got papaya smoothies, ham-and-cheese sandwiches, and checked their email at one of the few places in town with a wireless connection. They were eating, and all of sudden, "the building looked like water," Frame said, waving her pale arms in front of her like seaweed in waves.

She yelled, and they both started running. She looked back, and saw him hesitate, and turn back. When she got 50 or 100 feet away from the building, she turned back. She saw the third floor shake. Then it dropped.

The entire building, so new it had only been open for a few weeks, collapsed.

On Tuesday afternoon, just five minutes shy of a week later, rescue workers pulled McGarrell's body out of the rubble.

Tuesday night she and a friend found a body bag, and brought her best friend to the airport. Wednesday all she had to do was wait, and get him home.
-- Susan Kinzie in Jacmel

3:07 p.m. Hospital becomes microcosm of Haiti's loss and pain
The 82nd Airborne has arrived --and discovered that it will take point-of-the-spear force, not to mention patience, to bring order to the snarl of people around the capital's main hospital.

In a searing mid-morning sun, a group of soldiers worked the hospital entrance, a microcosm of the loss and pain this city is enduring.

Patients are being treated everywhere, with many recovering in courtyards and over-capacity wards rank with the smell of open wounds and infection.

Two U.S. soldiers checked cars that had been cleared to pass through the compound's high green gate, and three others kept back the growing crowd, most of them there to visit injured relatives.

In the category of small victories, the soldiers managed to shepherd the waiting Haitians into a line.

About 20 people back stood Ologune Pierre-Ville, 24, who had been waiting for three hours. Her cousin, Danielle, is inside recovering from a broken leg caused when her home fell.

Pierre-Ville, who had seen Danielle once since the quake, held a plastic bag filled with toilet paper, sanitary napkins, soap and a bottle of water. The hospital these days is strictly bring-your-own-supplies.

"I'm hurting a lot right now," she said. "And I'm worried about how she's doing in there."

The smell of death hung heavily over the line, although the U.S. soldiers braved it without the surgical masks that have become part of the standard wardrobe here since the quake.

The woman in line behind Pierre-Ville pioneered a new defense against the sickening odor. She pushed a Vick's inhaler dispenser into each nostril. It would be hours before either woman made it into the hospital.
--Scott Wilson in Port-au-Prince

2:20 p.m. At search and rescue scene, hope for Hollywood ending
There was a rumor, then a feeling, then something like a hopeful certainty surrounding the fate of the child inside the home on Muller Street.

Was 2-year-old Anne Christienne alive amid the crushed masonry and bent tin? Could she possibly be alive eight days after the earthquake?

The New York City Search and Rescue team arrived in a line of Excursions and Suburbans at 9 a.m., quickly unloading bolt cutters, a stretcher, a generator, and a German shepherd trained to smell the living rather than the dead.

New York-accented voices crackled over two-way radios as Lt. Tom Donnelly's crew, many of them veterans of the World Trade Center collapse, made their way into the ruins in search of little Anne.

The men worked along the home's treacherous second story, cutting through iron bars over the windows and disappearing inside. The sound of collapsing brick and timber rang out a few minutes later.

"We're in the kitchen," came the voice over the two-way, as another crew member emerged, covered in flour-white dust.

"Are you okay?" a colleague asked him.

"Yeah, yeah, fine."

Search and rescue scenes have become street theater in the quake's aftermath, with Haitians swarming to get a look at each one. Across the ruined capital, there have been Hollywood endings, but more often tragedies.

As onlookers gathered along Muller Street, the crew shushed them, straining to hear a slight cry that might give away Anne's position. Nothing. Another dog howled from inside his cage. A half hour passed.

"Steve, start loading everything up," came the voice over the two-way.

One of the senior officers made his way through the crowd to a woman sitting on the hood of a white Toyota, her hands holding her face.

"We tried. Can you tell her we tried?" the officer told his Creole translator. "We searched with cameras, we searched with dogs. There's nothing else we can do right now."

The women listened, then broke into deep sobs, leaning into the man next too her.

"Tell them I'm sorry," the officer said. "Make sure to say I'm sorry."
--Scott Wilson in Port-au-Prince

12:19 p.m. For Army medic, Haiti almost worse than a war zone
For hours, Sgt. Eric Morales-Diaz, who is an Army medic, helped out at a hospital in Haiti's capital, Port-au-Prince.

"People are dying of basic infections," he said. "Bones were exposed and there weren't even basic bandages. Doctors don't have anything."

"It's frustrating to see because we can only do so much in the time we have," he said, adding that in some ways, it's easier to work in Iraq and Afghanistan than in Haiti.

"Over there we have transportation, we can move things around and we can meet the needs," he said. "Here we don't have that. It's getting better but it isn't easy."
--Dana Hedgpeth in Port-au-Prince

11:17 a.m. U.S. citizens line up to leave Haiti after morning tremors
As black smoke billowed nearby, hundreds of American citizens lined up outside the U.S. embassy in Port-au-Prince, seeking paperwork that will allow them to leave Haiti. Some were en route to the State Department offices when they felt this morning's aftershock.

"I was very scared," said Josue Pierre, 33, a businessman in line with his four-year-old daughter. "My daughter looked at me and said, 'Daddy, Daddy. Are we going to die?'" The family is attempting to travel to Boston, to meet Pierre's wife. "Something else is going to happen here. It is just too scary to stay. It is time to go away," he said.

Near him in line, Fredistone and Linda Octavien waited for papers that will get them to Orlando, Fla., Linda's hometown. After their two-story house collapsed in last week's quake, they started sleeping outside under a tree. When they felt this morning's aftershock, they knew it was time to leave. "It is still shaking and it's just crazy," said Fredistone. "You can't stay in your house. You have to stay outside. We're going to wait it out for a bit and see what happens."

Rayhold Phanore, a pastor en route to Orlando with his daughter, saw his neighbors' roof collapse during this morning's aftershock, crushing the family sleeping inside. "When I felt the ground moving this morning, I ran out of my house," Phanore said. "It is so very, very bad here. Everybody's afraid. We don't know what's going to happen next. You think everything is done and then it keeps shaking."
--Dana Hedgpeth in Port-au-Prince

7:11 a.m. 'I thought someone was shaking my bed to wake me up'

At just around 6 a.m., Specialist Christopher Dollman of the 18th Airborne from Fort Bragg was catching his last few z's of sleep when he felt his cot shake. "I thought someone was shaking my bed to wake me up," he said. Instead it was an earthquake. "We had to get up at 6 anyway so it was convenient timing."

Since coming in with his unit Sunday, Dollman, who is a radio operator, has been helping to guard the gate at a military post. The spot was a former bus parking lot that the Army turned into its command post to run the computer systems, logistics and operations of its humanitarian effort.

Dollman has spent hours at the tall gate where Haitians stand outside looking in. "I'd say about 150 a day ask me for something," he said. "They're really good people. They want jobs, water, food." But he's in a unit that provides supplies and helps sustain the Army's operations so he can't give them anything. "You have to explain to them that for us to help them we have to sustain ourselves. It hurts a little but you have to say it. And they see we're trying to help. I tell them 'I'm not the boss.' Most of them get it.'"

--Dana Hedgpeth in Port-au-Prince

Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2010

5:29 p.m. 'In the U.S. we could save their limbs, but here you can't'

Late Tuesday afternoon, four orthopedic surgeons from the University of Miami stood outside a Vision Airlines plane on the tarmac in Port-au-Prince waiting to board. After four days in the capital working in a facility at the U.N. compound, they were headed home. In that time, they amputated legs, arms, fingers of Haitians -- many of them children -- whose injuries had become infected with gangrene. Some had flies and maggots in their wounds. Others were treated for bad fractures.

Veronica Diaz, one of the surgeons, said she did 24 operations -- 13 amputations -- in the past two days, and she showed pictures of a child who lost his fingers. Another photo showed her working to cut off a man's severely infected leg.

"In the U.S. we could save their limbs, but here you can't," said Zak Mahmood, another surgeon.
--Dana Hedgpeth in Port-au-Prince

3:41 p.m. A makeshift clinic at destroyed Jacmel hospital
A black hog wandered behind the crumbled cement of the maternity ward, which was destroyed in the earthquake, along with most of the rest of the Hospital St. Michel in this port city and popular tourist destination about 25 miles southwest of the capital.

A few inches away, patients lay on beds, on bright green planks pulled from the rubble, or leaned on family members waiting for help. A girl held an IV drip for her sister, who was lying on a bed mat on the ground, sweat pouring off her face, which was twisted in agony.

The patients were all outside, like everyone else in Jacmel, which was still suffering aftershocks Tuesday morning. String held up tarps, keeping off the almonds that kept dropping from the trees. But it made it unbearably hot in what had become a neighborhood, with families bringing meals and living alongside the hundreds of injured who were crammed in the small courtyard.

Laundry hung along one broken wall to dry, and in one corner a woman sewed a ripped dress, brushing away flies that settled on open wounds.

Close enough to reach out and touch one another, patients lay moaning as volunteer doctors and nurses wrapped gauze around wounds. A small boy stood, hands on his head, mouth trembling as he watched a doctor check his sister's leg.

A woman limped up the hill toward the tarps on crutches; another dropped onto a bench, bandages all over her head, whimpering softly in the midst of the crowd. Another slept on a low concrete wall covered in the white dust from the rubble. Behind her curved back, a man fanned his wife, who had just gotten a splint for a leg broken last week. A skinny brown dog slipped under the tarp, and he shooed it away.
--Susan Kinzie in Jacmel

3:34 p.m. Russian rescuers find man alive in Haiti rubble
Along Rue Dessaline on Tuesday morning, something like a miracle occurred.

A week after the earthquake, Russian search and rescue workers pulled a man alive from the rubble of the national telephone company headquarters, a once-hulking multistory building that has crumbled into chunks of concrete.

Rue Dessaline is the main commercial strip here, and lately it has been the focal point for looters seeking food, appliances and anything else of value.

But on Tuesday morning it buzzed with something like hope. The rescue started when Logan Abassi, a U.N. photographer surveying the damage downtown, came across the man while prowling the rubble.

It took him a minute to understand what he was seeing: a man in a sky-blue Izod shirt speaking to him from a small pocket in a pile of rubble 10 to 15 feet below him. Only the man's left hand was trapped, but that was enough to keep him from escaping.

Abassi climbed down to give him some water, then went for help.

"I scrambled down the pile and into the street," he said. "Just then the Russians were coming by, and I flagged them down."

In blue jumpsuits, the Russian team climbed the 50-foot-high debris pile and worked quickly to free the man, who appeared to be in his early 30s. It took them eight minutes to remove the debris from his hand, and they lifted him out into daylight.

His left hand was mangled and rotting after a week of infection. As they carried him down the pile in a stretcher, he looked dazed but awake.

Russian medics put an IV in his arm, and a crowd from Rue Dessaline swarmed around the survivor's stretcher, turning the debris pile into arena seating to witness the unbelievable.

A man, alive.
--Scott Wilson in Port-au-Prince

3:29 p.m. Contemplating a bleak future in Pétionville
There were five of them, then 10, then more than 20 -- all men, all gathered around a small radio that was perched on a rickety chair in a public park in Pétionville. Named for Alexandre Pétion, the 18th-century Haitian general and president -- this suburb of the capital city is where some of the country's wealthiest live. Now, though, with its overflowing trash piles and families huddled under tents amid the smell of feces and urine, it now holds a fair share of desperate earthquake survivors.

It wasn't clear what, if anything, was coming through over the airwaves. But the slightest possibility of new information was too tempting to pass up. Along with the dire questions of where to find food and water, the men explained, they faced another challenge: how to pass the time during the day.

Ephesien Catule, 26, a college student studying accounting, said the conversation with other men in the tent city doesn't stray far from their concerns. There are concerns about "my future, the future of my country, the future of the children," he said, pointing to a short boy who joined the crowd of men. "That's all I think and talk about."

Many in the group nodded, including Jocelin Joseph, 25, a computer programmer who lost his house in the quake. "Every day we sit and talk about what happened, nothing else," Joseph said. "What else is there?"
--Theola Labbé-DeBose in Port-au-Prince

2:26 p.m. Inova volunteers on the road
As the pickup truck turned off the paved road just before Cap-Haitien and sped, bumping and jolting, through the mountains, Vienna anesthesiologist Ronald Holt was lying on a mound of luggage in the back.

He and a few others who didn't fit inside the truck linked arms to try to keep from flying off like a sack of sugar over rough dirt roads, some washed out, with cattle wading through.

The crew of medical volunteers from Inova Fairfax with Community Coalition for Haiti were trying to get to Jacmel where, they had heard, people were desperate for medical care.

Holt told how he came down these dirt roads 25 years ago. Like many people, he had come to Haiti because someone told him how desperate the need was. He brought an anesthesiology machine donated by Inova, oxygen tanks and other supplies to the first hospital in the central plateau. It was a one-story building then, with no running water.

A quarter-century ago, he and the doctor who founded the hospital in Pignon -- Guy Theodore -- helped a 12-year-old boy with an obstructed bowel who would have died without surgery. It was the first operation there done with general anesthesia, and the boy was well enough a few days later to go home.

On Monday, as the truck bounced its way through small villages with woven-thatch houses, laundry spread out to dry on cactus fences and naked children sucking on sugar cane stalks as they waved to the truck, Holt said that first trip got him hooked on Haiti. "There's just so much need," he said. "Now more than ever."

The truck jolted to a halt in Pignon on Tuesday for the trip's final leg by air.

When they heard the rumble of the six-seater plane, a Haitian boy chased goats off the airstrip.

But the plane was small, and the drugs and supplies heavy. So they emptied all the survival gear out of their bags, hoping there would be food and water where they were going.

They divided up all the bags and boxes, trying to make everything fit, stickers on each bag.

Some watched anxiously as the pilots walked with clipboards, moving bags back and forth. Too much weight. "Empty your water bottles," said Karen Carr, director of Community Coalition for Haiti, and they ruefully poured out their small bottles onto the grass.

More shifting; the Haitian men stood to leave. "Amazing," said Mark Williams, the pilot for Mission Aviation Fellowship, who has been flying relief teams all week. "We're exactly at weight. That's good.

"Now, everybody do jumping jacks so we can have an extra pound."

The plane shuddered across the grass, then lifted up, to just over 5,000 feet -- low enough to feel like the belly might scrape the velvety folds of mountains, low enough to see skinny chickens pecking near shacks. They flew over the capital, seeing the crushed presidential palace gleaming white, over the dusty epicenter and then over more mountains to the bright turquoise ocean.

"Great flight, Mark," said physician-volunteer Jim French.

"Now the real work begins," Williams said. "God bless you."
--Susan Kinzie in Pignon

2:15 p.m. At Pignon orphanage, quake victims with nowhere else to go
Ten people arrived Monday night from Port-au-Prince to Anne Jeanpierre's orphanage in Pignon. They could not stay in the city, they said, they had nothing, and nowhere to go. She gave them food and water and a place to sleep. She had just gotten back herself.

When the earthquake hit, she was in the city with one of the older girls from her orphanage, paying the girl's rent and tuition at nursing school.

Then, "Boom!" she said, widening her eyes, flashing her hands open and finishing with a squeal. She and the girl broke a third-story window to get out.

"Nowhere to go down, stairs all collapsed, we jump out," she said in a quiet field in Pignon, the sun rising behind her making the tall grass glow pink. A small boy rubbed his head against her belly and she put her hand on his back.

They spent two nights in the street in Port-au-Prince, hurt and scared, then found a tap-tap, the local bus, to safety in Pignon. The first of many, she thinks. "They are all coming."
--Susan Kinzie in Pignon

9:13 a.m. Army captain leads effort to bring order to Port-au-Prince command
U.S. Army Capt. Robert Day is mayor of this enclave-under-construction in the earthquake-ravaged Haitian capital, a small, self-contained town being erected atop a charter bus company's parking lot and grassy back yard.

The size of about two football fields, Day's fiefdom is the soon-to-be-headquarters of the U.S. military's command and control operation for Haiti relief efforts. Located next door to the untouched-by-the-earthquake U.S. Embassy, the enclave will allow up to 200 military personnel to run the operational, logistical and computer brains of the U.S. humanitarian efforts here.

Day, of the 82nd Airborne, and his teams brought in everything from computers, wires and satellites to toilet paper and medical supplies.

When Day and his assistant -- Staff Sgt. Urlic J. Sanders -- got here Sunday, the lot contained only a broken-down bus, piles of sticks, scattered rocks and stray dogs. The wall surrounding it was crumbling in places. Now, the grassy field and parking lot boast a mini-city of tents filled with computers and phones; latrines lined up neatly against a wall; another tent for news conferences by military officials, and a "snack bar area" stocked with cases of bottled water and stacks of ready-to-eat meals.

Once the camp is set up, Day and Sanders must keep it running and outfitted with the necessary supplies and repair parts. They track "consumption rates" for food, water and other items. For now, they're burning about 70 gallons of fuel a day and allowing soldiers three meals a day and five liters of water until more supplies come in. Data still to be collected include the "output levels" at the 14 latrines.

Day and Sanders -- also known to his fellow soldiers as Col. Sanders, after the Kentucky Fried Chicken legend -- are operating on little to no sleep, like many here who are involved in overseeing how to get help to Haitians. Sanders, who had been awake 25 straight hours, said: "We're running on plenty of nicotine and water."
-- Dana Hedgpeth in Port-au-Prince

January 19, 2010; 9:13 AM ET  | Category:  world
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Please email us to report offensive comments.

Wow. This was hard to read.

Russian guys had a miracle in that rescue.

Hope those doctors have strong will and a good state of mind. Amputations. The dying. The pain of those with broken limbs that have been that way for a week. Pain causes insanity.

A crippled society in so many ways.

Posted by: TheBabeNemo | January 20, 2010 2:19 PM

Things are going to start to turn ugly, really fast. There are thousands of Americans unaccounted for, some still alive under the rubble. The United States is in Haiti, in force, yet these folks are not the priority. The relatives are left to wonder what is going on and are starting to question what the country is doing to rescue their loved ones.

Pray that you are never left to die by your government.

Posted by: magellan1 | January 20, 2010 8:57 PM

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