THREE WEEKS IN HAITI: Diary of a Rescue Mission chronicles three weeks in the lives of three men and one woman who promptly answered an unprompted call to come to the aid of 40 orphaned Haitian youngsters and their caregivers in the aftermath of the 7.0 magnitude earthquake that crushed Port-au-Prince on the afternoon of January 12th, 2010. “It is unbelievable that no one was killed,” one overwhelmed observer said upon seeing the devastated orphanage—one of over 30,000 commercial building and more than a quarter-million homes totally or severely destroyed by the earthquake and its aftermath, including the Presidential Palace, the Haiti’s National Assembly and the Cathedral of our Lady of the Assumption, known also as the Port-au-Prince Cathedral.
[Orphanage totally demolished by the earthquake]
Three million people were affected by the earthquake.
One million people were left homeless.
300,000 were seriously injured.
And according to the last official report from the government of Haiti, 230,000 people are known dead—tragically, an ever-climbing number that cannot become final until the last of the rubble is ultimately cleared away. Among the dead is the Archbishop of Port-au-Prince, Haiti government opposition leader Micha Gaillard, United Nations mission chief Hédi Annabi along with a large number of U.N. personnel, and the musician/rapper known as Jimmy O.
Of the four people that came to form the rescue team, none of the men knew one another, and the woman knew two of the three men. I am the woman. In the intense, intensive three weeks we were thrown together by—I am certain--Fate, we came to rely so absolutely upon one another, and in so many and varied ways, that by the time we had completed what we had set out to do, we could not have been closer had we been friends since childhood, or had more respect or fondness for one another had we been siblings. It was only one of many miracles that seemed to watch over and guide us.
Each of us brought a unique set of disciplines and different backgrounds to the operation:
Dial, 76, started it all when a mutual friend of his and mine called him with a summons for help. A native Texan, big businessman and international sportsman—a larger-than-life sort of guy with unlimited resources and compassion.. As far as Dial was concerned, failure was not an option. We had a job to do and by God, we would do it—not matter what it took or how much. Taller-than-average, sinewy, with a wide smile, prominent nose and bright, piercing eyes, he runs on only a few hours of sleep a night and despite it all, never, never runs out of energy.
Jim, 66, is a longtime friend who lives over the mountain from me, in northern New Hampshire. A retired school teacher and social worker, Jim and his wife Sheila have long had a second home in the Dominican Republic, spitting distance from the border of Haiti. Jim was our “man on the ground,” knowledgeable in the legalities, customs and culture of both countries and supremely capable of pulling off what turned out to be a massive, complex, detailed operation—indeed, one that far exceeded our wildest anticipations but fortunately, not our capabilities. A slight man of slightly less than average height, he gives the appearance of an Irish Leprechaun with his wild, grizzled hair and underneath his full beard, a sheepish, childlike grin. His enthusiasm was boundless and contagious, his quiet, competent understanding and empathy for the underprivileged brought the human touch to everything we achieved.
Doug, 55, is a dentist from Oklahoma City. A stranger to us all at the start, he is one of those rare people that puts you at ease immediately. No one could have completed our team like Doug. Tall, good-looking in a rugged sort of way, and astutely perceptive in a quick but gentle way, he was the only one of us who had a prior and longstanding relationship in Haiti with the orphanage we set out to save. With a past full of experience of third world countries, he was familiar with poverty, hunger, depravation—all the base misfortunes of humanity. He and his wife adopted a Haitian daughter several years ago. It was to Doug that we all looked to for guidance on how to deal with the people we had come to be involved with; for there is nothing so misplaced as a person out of his own country—and therefore out of his depth—who imposes his beliefs and opinions upon people in their own land.
And now, let me introduce myself--age 56, a published author of some dozen or so books (St. Martin’s Press and Penguin Putnam among my publishers), but until only recently, writing didn't put bread on the table--my longtime career as an international business consultant honed skills that served me well in the important work that lay ahead. But my 20 years as an outdoor writer--fishing shark-infested waters off Midway in the North Pacific and hunting in the highlands of Scotland--taught me courage...and the courage of my convictions.
All three men would go to Haiti. Their job was to carry out the mission.
I would remain behind. My job was to orchestrate it.
Along the way, several men and women who live on this broken and battered island joined us our cause—people you will come to know in the pages of my diary: an American missionary we affectionately called “that crazy, crazy, saint;” a native, highly connected Haitian woman who was our indispensible, night-and-day contact in Port-au-Prince; a Dominican man who had the savvy and strength to obtain provisions and medicines and deliver them legally and effectively from one side of the border to the other, at a chaotic time when border passes were difficult to obtain; and a Frenchman who helped lay the advance groundwork in cooperation with the consulates of both Haiti and the Dominican Republic. They gave selflessly of themselves, often in perilous circumstances and for no remuneration.
And so, we embarked upon perhaps one of the most important endeavors of our lives—and surely, in retrospect, one of the most fulfilling. We had one and only one objective: to bring 40 hungry, frightened and unsheltered souls to safety.
All of us had the skills to pull off the mission. The only difference was, this time it was life-and-death.
Here is our story.
The telephone rang at 4 o’clock in the morning. I was awake—I generally am at that hour and Dial is, too, even though it was only three o’clock in Texas. A longtime friend of Dial and his wife, Esperanza, I am also his biographer and know the man—and his shrill Texas drawl—quite well.
“Laurie, you gotta get me a DC3,” he ordered over the phone.
Why do you need a DC3?” I asked drowsily.
“I gotta go to Haiti and rescue some orphans!”
“Dial,” I replied. “You can’t just fly into Haiti. First of all, taking out a whole plane-load of children would appear to the authorities as child abduction, not an act of human kindness, and that’s a criminal offense...I don't mean human kindness. I mean hauling kids out of Haiti. Second, do you really think the Port-au-Prince Airport’s allowing private planes to just fly right in after last week’s earthquake?”
“That’s the problem, Laurie,” Dial said. There’s a bunch of orphans living under a bedspread lashed to a couple of trees in some priest’s cousin’s backyard and they have hardly any fresh water and hardly any food and their orphanage is a pile of rubble on the ground. If we don’t do something, they’re gonna starve to death… We have to do something about it.”
“It’s an awful situation, Dial, I know... I’ve seen the news reports…”
“But that’s not it, Laurie.” Dial’s voice took on a somber tone. Donna’s little Haiti girl—the orphan she and Bill have been in the process of adopting—she’s still there. That little girl is among those orphans. Laurie, I swear I hear that little girl crying out for help…”
My heart stopped. Donna and Bill (not their real names) were friends of Dial’s and mine. This put a whole different complexion on matters. Suddenly this wasn’t a headline in a newspaper. Now this was something personal—terribly, tangibly personal—and Dial was right.
We had to do something about it...and fast.
To be continued…