At the recommendation of a couple of people, and most importantly Jillian, I am mulling around the idea of laying the groundwork to write a book. Because it would, most likely, revolve almost entirely around the events of the earthquake, I have been thinking a lot about what happened that night, and the days immediately after. So while organizing some videos I took of Laura Silsby with my Flip, I ran into a bunch of videos that I took the day after the earthquake.
The one above is of Jillian, Chuck and I standing on the tarmac of the PAP airport boarding the first Coast Guard evacuation flight out of the country. For 8 hours before we had gotten to this point, we had been nervously lingering in the lobby of the American Embassy, awaiting our fate with NO idea when we would be leaving. Jillian had trouble walking, and Chuck looked like he had been beaten up by 10 guys with baseball bats. In fact, he looked so bad that almost every single person in the lobby came and asked him if he was OK. He was not, and neither was Jillian, so we needed to get out fast.
But the wait seemed to stretch on for days, and with no food and no way to reach our families, we hopelessly waited for some kind of announcement that we could leave the country to get Jillian and Chuck some kind of medical attention. The embassy was completely inept in their ability to treat those waiting in the lobby, but to their credit, it was for good reason.
There was only one doctor in the entire embassy, and he was using a conference room just inside the front doors as his triage. At one point in the day an embassy staffer barreled into the lobby asking for able-bodied men to help. While I am NOT an able-bodied man, I volunteered and was hurried down the hallway with about half-a-dozen other men into this conference room. The room contained only the bare essentials of treating minor injuries, as if they had poured out a large first aid kit and left it at that.
But inside was an enormous Haitian woman who was in horrible shape. She was covered in dried blood and rubble dust, and her arms and legs looked as if they had compound fractures beneath her blood-stained dress. They needed our help to move her from the gurney to the conference table, where the doctor would do his best to stop the bleeding and make a diagnoses before evacuating her the next chance they got.
I positioned myself by her stomach, and placed my hands under her back. She was screaming in agony, and it seemed that every single one of the people trying to help were just making the pain worse. We all tried to assure her it was going to be OK, but in reality we were lying, this women looked BAD. The doctor counted to three and we all lifted her onto the conference table. We were quickly thanked for our help and then ushered out of the room, and as we filed out no one spoke, everyone just looked ahead blankly. This woman might not make it, and she’s not even the worst of the worst.
So we returned to the lobby, and I sat next to Jillian and Chuck who had, after hours of waiting, received the paperwork for our replacement passports, as we had all lost ours in the Mission House. Jillian filled out hers as I filled out mine and Chuck’s, who was unable to do it on his own because his left eye was practically swollen shut and his hand was badly injured. We passed our paperwork to the unfriendly face behind the glass barriers, and then sat down for another wait.
Then around noon we were warned that they were expecting another major aftershock between 2 and 2:30pm. Jillian and I had already been taking time to step outside occasionally as she was having anxiety about being indoors, but around 1:45pm the entire lobby emptied out almost in unison. 2:30pm came and went, and there was no aftershock, at least not one you would call major, so we returned to our seats in the lobby, which was slowly becoming a standing room only situation.
Soon after this, an embassy worker entered the lobby who looked like he was a decision-maker, like he was an authority. He was. He announced that there would be two evacuation flights today, that we would have to pay for them ourselves, and that we would have to fill out a form and people would be selected according to necessity to leave. While stressful, this seemed great! Jillian and Chuck seemed to be the two most necessary evacuees in the entire lobby, so after the formalities, we thought it was a lock.
We approached the glass, retrieved our new paperwork, and feverishly filled it out hoping that our timeliness would give us a better chance of getting on the first flight. We stepped back to the glass to hand in our evacuation homework, and while many let Chuck and Jillian go ahead of them in line, there were a few people who felt they needed to get out of the country faster.
One woman in particular began arguing with her teenage daughter about whether they should be on the first flight, or not. Surprisingly, the daughter was the one arguing that there were people other than them who should take higher priority, as they were not injured or in any particularly dire need. I admired her immensely. But the mother overruled her daughter, pitifully explaining “we’re just taking up space here! We’d be better off out of their way!” She grabbed the paperwork, quickly handed it out to a group of girls that they were with, told them to fill them out as fast as possible, and then ran to the window to hand them in. You just can’t compete with a running mother when you can barely walk…
We sat down, yet again, eating what was left of MREs and talking to folks who were interested to know what had happened. About an hour later, the authoritative man return with a list. “I’m going to read the names of the people who are on the first flight. By being on this list does not guarantee you will be in the flight, or that you will leave the country today, but if you hear your name then please go to the exit where a car will be waiting to bring you to the airport.”
He began reading the names, but because the names were in no particular order, the process was maddening. Every time he paused between names my heart would race, praying to myself that they would call Jillian or Chuck next. I consider the possibility of them being called and not me, and while not ideal, it was feasible as they needed to get out and seek help. We continued to listen as the embassy man reached the end of the page, turned it over, and then read another dozen names before reaching the woman who had argued with her daughter earlier about who should have priority. She squealed, “Yes! Come on girls!” and then brushed by us on her way to escape. The man read another dozen names, and then stopped. “That’s it. We will only be having one flight out today, so the remainder of you will be on future flights. We are expecting to have at least two flights tomorrow.”
I was in shock. Anger was pulsing through my veins. 95% of the people called were totally fine and in perfect health. And that woman! The nerve of her!!! To take a seat on that plane while Jillian and Chuck just stood here in pain. A house had just fallen on top of them for Christ sakes!
The man looked up from the paper and saw Chuck. Others in the room had seen that he was still there too, and were voicing their concern that he had yet to be called. The man asked, “What is your name, sir?” Chuck said his name, and with glossed over eyes, the man quickly looked over the sheet and said, “Great, you were on the list, I’m sorry for the mistake.”
He started towards the exit, and turned back. “What about you guys?” he said. “It’s OK, we’ll be fine. Good luck! Get to a doctor as soon as possible,” Jillian said. He quickly thanked us for our help, and then walked out the door. The authoritative man followed after him, looking like he was trying to avoid to constant pleas of everyone else who “needed” to get out of the country. But they had still not called Jillian’s name. She had been trapped in the rubble of a building for 10 hours, she deserved this!
I chased after the man with the list just as he handed it to a heavy-set woman standing in the hallway. “Ma’am,” I said, “I think there’s been a mistake. Is Jillian Thorp on that list as well? She was in the same collapsed building that that man was in.” I pointed to Chuck who was slowly making his way towards the exit, and said, “she’s injured, badly, and needs a doctor. We need to get her out of the country.” She looked at me, looked at the list, and then looked confused. “Hold on one second,” she said as she turned towards the office space behind the glass windows.
I stepped away as she spoke with another embassy worker through the glass. She turned to me and explained, “they have an updated list in there, they’re checking that one too. You’re her…?” “Her husband,” I quickly responded. She discussed it for another minute with the woman behind the glass and then turned around. “You guys are on the list. Hurry up though, the cars are leaving now.” I ran back to the lobby and grabbed Jillian. “We’re on the list, let’s go!” I said. “Are you sure?” she responded. I nodded yes and we grabbed the little possessions we still had and hurried towards the exit.
Out front of the towering embassy building was a line of unmarked suburbans. We stood there, the last ones in line, waiting for our chance to jump into one. Yet another embassy worker approached us and asked for our names. I recited them once again as she searched the list she held in her hands. She looked up, “You guys aren’t on the list.” “I was just told by a woman inside that my wife and I were on the list, there had been a mistake. That there were two lists!” I pleaded. She told us to wait there, as each of the suburbans quickly filled with people and bags. There was going to be no room if we had to wait much longer.
The woman ran outside and gave us the OK to go, but explained, “You need to get in these cars, if there is no room then you will have to wait until tomorrow.” We smashed our bags in the back of one of the suburbans, I jumped in the middle of the front seat, and Jillian crammed into the back. We were in, we were going, it was actually happening. We drove to the airport through the traffic filled streets, avoiding rubble in places, and bodies in others. I helped another man fill out his paperwork on the way to the airport, something I was under the impression had to be done BEFORE you were on the list. Whatever, it didn’t matter, we were on our way.
We drove through a chain-linked fence gate straight onto the tarmac, and were deposited next to two huge Coast Guard planes. The sound was deafening, and the uncomfortableness of the loud engines was multiplied by the photographers taking pictures of us. We had become part of the story, not the solution. It was heartbreaking. Both Jillian and I wanted to stay, we wanted to help, but at this moment we were forced to leave. While we will never look back at the decision to evacuate as a mistake, it was still a hard decision to make. Driving to the airport brought a sense of relief, but it also brought a sense of betrayal, as we were leaving the people we had come to help at their greatest time of need.
The video above starts where this part of the story ends. This is the first time I have written down this particular part of our experience of the earthquake, and there’s a lot that I’m leaving out. It’s nice to write down something that I have gone through over and over again in my head, but at the same time it’s frustrating that I’ve forget some of the details that I wish I remembered. The idea of writing a book would help to document those things in a way that I would never forget, which in my mind, would be a great thing. I’ll post a video of the other side of the flight next week, as reaching Santo Domingo was like entering a ring of heaven after what we had experienced over the past 48 hours.
But today marks the three-month anniversary since our return to Haiti, and it’s starting to feel right. While growing pains are definitely present (at least for me), this place feels more and more like home. Some things will always bother me about living here, but as time has gone by I have found that part of this experience is to learn how to adjust in ways that I was never capable of before. While the idea of moving to Haiti always seemed hard, actually implementing it has proved to be one of the toughest things I’ve ever done. It’s a true test, and something that I want to do. So here’s to another three months, and another after that, because Haiti will teach me something about myself, I just haven’t figured out what it is yet.