Thank goodness for slow traffic in port au prince.
Following my training class, I was on my way back to the Hotel Montana with my driver, Fanel Antoine. Because I had stayed at the bank a little later than usual, he was trying to deliver me as fast as he could, but to no avail. A large truck in front of us was lumbering up the steep, winding hill to the hotel, blocking our way. We were finally seconds away from the hotel when our whole world started to shake. The car rocked back and forth. A tall retaining wall crumbled right before our eyes, onto the truck ahead.
The hillside and the roadway collapsed behind us, but the car was untouched. The violent shaking lasted about 30 seconds. Having experienced a couple of earthquakes, I knew pretty much right away that we needed to get out of the car, into the open and certainly away from what remained of the retaining wall. The road was blocked in both directions, so Fanel and I decided to walk the last 200 yards to the hotel. Fanel didn’t speak English and I don’t speak French, but we managed to communicate with expressions and a few common words.
The Hotel Montana was touted as a four-star hotel near Petionville, a Port au Prince suburb. It was the premier place to stay and be seen in Haiti, a secure and stable refuge from the reality of the rest of the city. But when we got to the hotel site, it was no longer standing. All six stories had collapsed on top of one another like a stack of pancakes. Nearly 300 people died in the hotel’s rubble. If Fanel had gotten me to the hotel two minutes earlier, I would have been crushed under tons of concrete along with everyone else who was in the building. The survivors were shouting, crying and screaming, and the scene was chaos.
I tried to call my wife, but the cell service went down almost immediately and stayed offline for days. I recognized a bartender and a couple of waiters that I had befriended. They were a little bloodied, but said they were okay. The shopping area, restaurant, bar and parking garage had all collapsed. I heard shouts from under the debris in the parking garage and the hotel, but there was no way to get to the people underneath. It was the most horrible, helpless feeling I had ever experienced
TUESDAY JAN. 12, 5:30 P.M.
Fanel insisted that our only alternative was to walk the six, hilly miles back to the bank in downtown Port au Prince. By that point it was getting dark. This was not a strategy I would have considered even 45 minutes earlier. The pathways of Port au Prince could be mean streets, especially at night, and I was a pretty conspicuous target in a Haitian crowd. Taking stock, I had with me my messenger bag with my passport, laptop, cell phone, and, fortunately, a flashlight.
We also had a half-full water bottle between us. So we started back on foot. Since we were going into town and everyone else was trying to get home, most of the foot traffic was against us. It took nearly three hours walking in the dark among downed wires and rubble in the streets, up and down hills and into back alleys. The survivors were all gathered in the streets in groups, or were trying to get to their homes. Fanel could not reach his wife and family, and he was worried sick. But he stuck with me. He became my new best friend and a genuine hero in my eyes.
TUESDAY 8:30 P.M.
When we finally saw the bank, it was the only large building still standing in downtown Port au Prince and it was the only one with electricity. So Fanel left me in the parking lot in the care of the bank guards and walked home to check on his family. I had been in the habit of tipping him $5 per day for driving me back and forth. I hugged him, and gave him my last $50 and my prayers.
He probably saved my life, so it was a pretty puny tip, but it was everything I had. I sat down in a chair in the middle of the bank parking lot, surrounded by several armed guards (who spoke only French), afraid to go into the building itself. It looked very sturdy, but we had just experienced one hell of a shake.
WEDNESDAY, JAN. 13, 6 A.M.
The husband of the bank supervisor who hired me came by the bank looking for his wife and children. They were supposed to meet him at home, but his home had been flattened. He and I kept each other company all night. He escorted me on another walking tour of the streets to a nearby hotel, looking for food. I got a few hours of fitful rest on a couple of pool cushions beside the hotel pool. The U.N. brought in some huge equipment overnight to try to clear some rubble and find people under it.
The backhoes, front loaders and cranes came in on flatbed trucks escorted by armed guards with machine guns. Helicopters were overhead surveying the dam- age as the sun rose. Even where there was no rubble, cars were tossed everywhere and in every position along the streets.
I began to suspect that food riots would probably start in a few days if food didn’t arrive soon. The main market downtown in the Delmas neighborhood had collapsed and all of the food was buried under tons of rubble. Word arrived that the National Palace (the Haitian White House) had partially collapsed, along with several government buildings.
WEDNESDAY 9:30 A.M.
Marie, the bank supervisor, walked into the bank parking lot, and I was able to tell her the good news that her husband was alive. She commandeered a bank vehicle and drove me to the U.S. Embassy. The destruction along the way was indescribable.
You may have seen it on TV, but in person it’s very emotional. Office buildings and schools had completely pancaked. The entire downtown area was flattened. Among everything else, the National Prison collapsed and the police released all of the inmates.
Also along the way, we passed by an overwhelmed hospital with hundreds maybe thousands of injured people in the courtyard. Amazingly, Marie’s husband (a doctor) was helping out at the hospital courtyard and saw us drive by. It was a very happy reunion.
I registered at the Embassy and said goodbye to my Haitian friends. I was in the hands of the U.S. government and watching CNN in an uncomfortable plastic chair, with about 200 other people in a 25×100 room. Despite the fact that the Embassy had run out of water and MRE meals, I had to trust them when they told me more would be arriving soon.
WEDNESDAY, 11:00 P.M.
There was a flight out this evening at 6 p.m. bound for Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic, but the Embassy prioritized people, and I didn’t make the cut. There were 45,000 Americans in Haiti. After 24 hours, they had evacuated about 70.
THURSDAY, JAN. 14, 2 A.M.
A major aftershock it had to be at least a 6.0 cleared out the Embassy faster than you can imagine, just when I was thinking it was okay to get under a roof again. It seemed like the ground was shaking all the time, but I knew that had to be just in my mind. My new friend, Steve, showed me a clever trick: he set a half-full water bottle on its side to see if the water shook. That was the one indication we had of whether another quake was hitting.
THURSDAY 9:30 A.M.
The evacuation process was nothing like the movies no helicopters on the roof or giant C- 5A aircraft crowded with refugees. Steve and I slowly made our way to near the front of the line to get into a group of SUVs. After much waiting around, we took off in a crazy caravan of about 20 Suburbans with diplomatic plates, lights flashing, horns honking, causing some of the worst traffic jams Port au Prince could handle.
We arrived at the airport about 30 minutes later and drove directly out onto the Tarmac. No metal detectors, no passport control just us standing out on the Tarmac, waiting in the Haitian sun. The airport was a flurry of activity. There were planes from all over the world, including Belgium, Spain and France. There were several large ones from the U.S. and other countries. Reporters and cameramen were everywhere.
THURSDAY 2 P.M.
After we stood on the Tarmac for about five hours, our plane a Coast Guard C-130 with seats bolted to the cargo deck arrived! Steve and I picked seats in the back row just in front of the rear cargo ramp where all the luggage was being stored. They raised the ramp, and we took off for the 40-minute ride to Santo Domingo. A soldier sat on the luggage to keep the stack from falling down on us. The Coast Guard got us to Santo Domingo to rousing applause on landing.
THURSDAY 6 P.M.
The Embassy presence in Santo Domingo was amazing. The staff even donated some of their used clothing to us. I put on my first fresh shirt since Tuesday. I also got some fresh albeit used underwear. They encouraged us to make a free phone call home, and I did. Finally, I took an Embassy-chartered bus to a hotel and headed to my room.
After a glorious, long, hot shower, I began making plans to get home. All of the flights out of Santo Domingo were full, but I managed to get a seat to Atlanta on a Friday morning flight and would be home in Montana by Saturday noon. Bryan Meyers is a Montana-based computer consultant and technical writer. He is the author of several books and many magazine articles in IBM midrange technical publications. Through his company, enskill.com, Bryan provides computer training to organizations worldwide.