Haiti quake workers rescue living, mourn dead
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (AP) – All rescuers saw of Saint-Helene Jean-Louis when they arrived at the collapsed University of Port-au-Prince building were the top of her head and her left hand.
It had been four days since a 7.0-magnitude earthquake leveled the building, one of hundreds destroyed in the most powerful natural disaster to hit the impoverished Caribbean nation in more than 200 years – but the 29-year-old student was still breathing inside a stairwell of the former four-story structure. She was surrounded by eight decaying bodies, one entwined with her own.
Rescuers from the Fairfax County, Virginia, Urban Search and Rescue team tore away through a few more layers, digging down and sideways to free her upper body. She was able to sip a little water.
Nearly 30 hours later, working in two shifts, they pulled Jean-Louis out of the building – still alive. She was able to say her name before being whisked away to an Israeli field hospital.
“To me, she’s the hero of the group,” said Fairfax County firefighter Richard McKinney. “She had to have spent that first night by herself.”
Other foreign and national rescue teams worked feverishly to get to survivors in the capital of Port-au-Prince. Late Saturday, American rescuers were trying to free three people trapped alive in the rubble of a suburban supermarket. They managed to shout back and forth with the survivors, and get them water, but had just started attempting to reach them.
“Contact has been very brief because they are still yelling through concrete slabs,” said Joseph Zahralban, captain of a FEMA urban search and rescue team based out of Miami, Florida, that was taking part in the rescue effort. “They are aware of the fact we are attempting to rescue them.”
Mexico’s Rescue Brigade, a group with mole-like tunneling skills that located survivors after Mexico’s deadly 1985 earthquake and in New York after Sept. 11, pulled 35-year-old teacher Jean Baptiste Patrick alive from the rubble of the St. Gerard Technical School on Saturday, according to an Associated Press photographer who witnessed the rescue. The brigade worked in coordination with Mexican federal police and the Mexican Navy.
On Friday, 18 members of the brigade pulled seven other survivors out from under collapsed buildings, said team coordinator Fernando Alvarez.
Israeli troops rescued the director of Haiti’s tax ministry who was trapped in the ruins of his office building. Soldiers carried him out on a stretcher, checked his vital signs and declared him unhurt.
Other rescuers were not as lucky: The United Nations announced Saturday that the body of Haiti mission chief Hedi Annabi was found in the rubble of the agency’s headquarters, which collapsed in the earthquake.
Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said the bodies of Annabi’s deputy, Luiz Carlos da Costa, and the acting police commissioner, Doug Coates, also were found.
The Rev. Dr. Sam Dixon, head of the United Methodist Church’s humanitarian relief agency, died before he could be rescued from the rubble of the Hotel Montana, which was destroyed by the earthquake, the church said in a statement from New York.
But emergency workers early Sunday pulled the co-owner of the hotel from its wreckage. Nadine Cardoso, 62, was dehydrated but otherwise uninjured, said her husband, Reinhard Riedl. Rescuers who thought other people had survived emerged with an empty stretcher and explained there was no other sign of life.
Nearly 30 teams from around the globe were scrambling Saturday to find and rescue the living, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told reporters in Port-au-Prince.
It was increasingly a race against time: Red Cross spokesman Simon Schorno noted that the critical 72-hour period for finding survivors “has past and … these stories of people surviving are getting rarer.”
Mindful of the odds against the victims, rescuers are celebrating their occasional bouts of good fortune as nothing less than miracles.
“The whole thing is pretty amazing,” Fairfax County Lt. Evan Lewis said of Jean-Louis’ rescue. “I’ve been doing this for a long time and you don’t see that many people buried for that long of a time who are still coherent.”
Jean-Louis didn’t speak English, but was able to talk to a local Creole-speaking firefighter while rescuers sawed, drilled, hammered and pulled at the rubble. She stated her age and what part of her body hurt. They inserted IVs into her arms and began administering fluids and antibiotics.
“I just kept telling her, ‘Slow and steady,”‘ said Fairfax County rescuer Robert Schoenberger.
The team – with the help of four specially trained Air Force rescuers – faced daunting obstacles: An aftershock late Saturday morning knocked the IV out of Jean-Louis’ arm and sent rescuers scrambling off the mountain of rubble. Numerous bodies inside the building had begun to decay and the stench was at times overwhelming.
At one point, it appeared the only thing holding the rescuers up from freeing the woman was her foot, which was twisted awkwardly. Amputation was discussed. Then a problem arose with a piece of debris resting on her thigh.
“We’ve gone past plans A, B, C, and D, and we’re on plan W,” Lewis said, sighing.
The team was especially anxious to save the Haitian woman. Two days earlier, they had worked on a man who talked to them during the eight hours of his rescue operation – then died just before he was pulled out.
Jean-Louis’ story had a happier ending.
“You have Mother Nature in all her power and fury with this earthquake, yet this woman has just as much strength as the earthquake,” said rescue squad member Kim Klaren. “It’s almost like the earthquake picked the wrong woman to pick on.”
Associated Press writers Michelle Faul, Gregory Bull and Mike Melia in Port-au-Prince, and Martha Mendoza in Mexico City contributed to this report.