It was Day 3, Friday, 22 January. I was told to expect a report from Global Rescue around five o'clock that afternoon. Dial, who underwrote the entire deal, and I, who organized it, contacted the private international search and rescue organization the day before. Dial was a long-time client of Global, which he used whenever he or friends needed to get out of tough, remote, treacherous places fast. Dial was in Reno and by coincidence, bumped into the head of Global Rescue, whom he knew. Both men were attending the annual Safair Club International convention, an affluent gathering of big-game hunters and sporting purveyors from around the world. Global could provide a penultimate rescue and evacuation, within hours, should we wish: startling results...at a startling price. If--and I mean IF--the conditions warranted, there would have been no question that Dial would have opened his wallet wide. But the conditions did not warrant.
I was in constant touch with Dial while simultaneously fielding developments on the ground in Haiti. Up to the last, before contracting Global, I had ascertained that conditions remained unwarrant for a full-blown mission with eight or nine Land Rovers bearing 16 or more armed commandos. The reason was, we still had no place to take the 40 adults and children we were committed to save. The kids had already been scared to death by the earthquake; we didn't need to traumatize them needless with an Arnold Schwarzeneggar-type rescue. I was weighing out the now fast-flowing information coming to me out of Haiti, while dealing with Global's Boston-based headquarters and choosing from their extensive menu of evacuation/rescue options.
After consulting with Dial, we came to a decision. We'd have Global send in, the following morning, two teams of two, bringing fresh water, rice, non-perishable food and basic medical supplies. One team, an armed guard and a medic (indeed, I learned this was Globals' top emergency medical man) would remain with the children; the medic would evaluate each adult and child and prepare a full report on their physical condition. The other team would escort Father Bien-aime to his second congregation, in Tapio, about an hour southwest of Port-au-Prince over mountaneous terrain to ascertain the viability of moving the 40 children and adults to that location. The mission would commencedawn on Friday, January 22--Day 3.
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There had been a constant flood of calls back and forth between Jim and me, arranging wire transfers, confirming what supplies would be needed once we relocated the orphanage, and most important, getting a sense of Ouanaminthe. By midday of Day 3, Jim and I knew that if Tapio did not work out, if indeed it proved impossible to support the group of 40, Ouanaminthe would be our only option. I couldn't get past the fact that Tapio would have to supplied from Port-au-Prince--virtually impossible, in view of the known vast shortages experienced by the people of that ravaged city. Further complicating things was the high, rural mountain road to Tapio--and the fact that Father Bien-aime's car had been destroyed by the earthquake. Jim and I focused entirely on Tapio. The final decision would have to be made by the priest. As far as I was concerned, it was Ouanaminthe--or nothing. And Jim and Dial agreed.
The report failed to come in by five o'clock the afternoon of the third day, as I had anticipated. The minutes ticked away, then the hours. Global Rescue is a 24/7 operation. "Has the report come in?" I asked when, by six o'clock, I had become restless. Then it was eight, nine...the house was quiet, the dogs were sleeping, the night was dark and time moved so painfully slow.
Finally the phone rang.
"The report's just in," Ted from Global said. "The children are fine. Our medic also checked the adults and a few other children in the neighbor that the priest was concerned about. A few superficial scraps and bruises, but all fine. Our medic provided normal first aid where needed. The two you had a concern over got a full medical evaluation. Oral antibiotics were left with the priest for one child, the other needed some antibiotic ointment and bandages. There are 40 in the group and they are living in the backyard of a house on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince. Our guys said the neighborhood appears to be safe. They are living in makeshift tents from bedspreads. We left enough food and fresh water for four days.
Enough food and water to get through Monday...
Our two men that escorted the priest to Tapio--their report is not so good. The road to Tapio is not good, mostly unpaved, and it goes up a very steep hill--so steep, in fact, that you have to have a four-wheel drive vehicle to get up it. They got to Tapio and, well--it seems it's nothing more than a field. No water, not shelter except for a few makeshift buildings, no plumbing or sewage. The field is overgrown--it would take, our people estimate, at least month to clear the field and set up a temporary camp. It's no good."
With the click of the phone I knew it was indeed Ouanaminthe--or nothing.
It was Sunday, January 24, when I went up to see Jim at his house, the day he would leave New Hampshire for the Dominican Republic. Saturday had been quiet--we knew all we could know at that point and there was nothing to be done until Jim got to Haiti. We had tried to reach the priest in vain, but were hesitant to say much. Until Jim got to Ouanaminthe, and looked for a rental house, we didn't have anything substantial to say--and there was no use worrying the priest 'til we had something solid. Jim was ready to head out to Portland, Maine, to the airport. It was a beautiful day--bright, blue cloudless sky and warm for January--what we call a "weather-breeder" in these parts, which should have alerted my suspicions...and I would soon discover.
Jim was packed, ready to go--and incredibly excited. He would, he said, be in the thick of it--that he knew; but he would be doing exactly what he wanted his whole life long--a life dedicated to children in distress, in social services, helping the underpriviledged and in this mission, most assuredly saving lives. One thing, though, really had him jumping. As a lark, he had done a websearch for "Ouanaminthe" and "Orphanage" and discovered a place called Hope for Haiti, some woman named Danita Estrella.
"You've got to get in touch with this woman," he said. "She's our answer, I just know it! Hope for Haiti has an office in Florida but it's closed. Keep trying...we've got to reach this woman. I'm tell you, I just know she's our answer. If she'll take Father and the children in, and let them stay at her orphanage until we get something set up. Go onto her website [www.danitaschildren.org] It's fantastic. Keep calling her. If she'll take the kids, we can get them out of there Tuesday, Wednesday latest. Jim had already arranged to get a truck and men with guns to go to Port-au-Prince to bring the children to Ouanaminthe.
When I got home, I called Hope for Hait but alas, the phone recording...and left a long message for Danita. That evening Jim called...he was at an airport hotel. His flight was cancelled...weather in New York...he was on the first flight out in the morning and if all went well, he could make the connection to the Dominican Republic by the skin of his teeth.
Very early the morning of Monday, Day 6, two miracles occured within moments of one another.
First, Jim made the connection from the early morning flight from Portland to his scheduled flight to the Dominican Republic from JFK. He was on the way!
What happened next has no explanation, no reasoning. I was driving along a wooded, dirt backroad on a quick errand, a road where there is absolutely no cellphone reception--when my cellphone rang.
"This is Danita," the voice on the other end said as clearly as if it was next door.
At that precise moment, our mission changed entirely, incredibly and beyond reckoning--guided, I am quite certain, by the hand of God.
To be continued...