It was late afternoon and Marie was stirring a pot of beans on an open fire in the alleyway just outside of their small apartment. Jean Paul, a three-year-old, plays with a wooden spoon and an aluminum pot on the dirt. Little Rene, 12 months old, is gurgling happily in his crib just inside the house.
The cinderblock building is two stories and their apartment is small, about 10 feet by 10 feet. Most of the room is taken up by their beds and Rene's crib - which is really just a sturdy wooden crate left over from a nearby Christian missionary's home, but it's slats keep him from rolling out onto the floor or crawling out of bed before Marie wakes up.
A sudden movement causes Marie to lose her balance. She looks around her and sees that Jean Paul has fallen on his side and is rolling around on the ground -- unable to sit or stand up. In the seconds it has taken for the reality of what is happening to register, the walls of the cinderblock building are cracking and begin to cave in on each other.
Marie runs toward the door and is knocked back by the explosion of dust and concrete and wood beams that less than a minute ago had been their home. The earth is still moving and Marie is sprawled on the ground, frozen -- not sure that Jean Paul will not be swallowed up by the rumbling terror, and the horrible realization that Rene has been buried under the building.
Finally the trembling stops.
The walls have completely fallen in on themselves and what was the roof is now in giant shards, suspended by huge blocks of cinderblock and cement. She runs to the front door -- to what was the door of her home. Now it is indiscernible among the blocks of cement.
She hears Rene screaming from within the rubble. Dust is still swirling as she frantically begins pulling at the blocks, trying to lift the wooden beams and slabs of cement to get to her son. She can hear him screaming. She realizes she is screaming, too. In minutes her fingers are bleeding from her wild thrashing at the tin and wood and cement.
She decides she must remove each piece of rubble individually in order to make any headway toward the cries of her baby. Calmer now, she pulls out one piece, then another. She lays on the ground and reaches in to grab whatever pieces she can grab, tossing them away. But she quickly reaches bigger, immovable pieces. She has no tools, no shovel or pick -- nothing to leverage against the massive weight of those mortared cinder blocks.
After a few hours, struggling against the ruins, her hands are shredded and dust mingles with her blood creating a batter on her hands as if she was dipping chicken in flour before frying it.
Still she hears Rene crying. Her aunt comes to her -- pleads with her to stop -- it's no use, she says, you must leave. The building across the way is still standing and could topple at any moment. But Marie will not leave -- she can hear Rene. His screams have subsided into pitiful cries. She must get him out. He's alive! He will be okay if she can just move the crumbled remains of the walls out of the way. She knows he's just a few feet away.
She pulls and twists her hands around the pieces and in desperation and frustration swings her fists against the gray mass.
Finally, completely spent, she sits on the edge of the rubble. It's been 12 hours since the earthquake and dawn is breaking. There are sporadic cries from Rene now -- not as terrifying as before. He is still alive.
Having rested for a little while, she continues to pull at the large blocks of cement. She will not, can not, stop trying. Occasionally she looks around to see if there's anyone to come help. From time to time she enlists the aid of a passerby, but the people who stop can see how hopeless it is and they continue down the road looking for what -- they don't even know.
Another 12 hours of no food, no water, no help -- just the intermittent cries of her child. Jean Paul sits quietly and stares. He doesn't cry, he doesn't move.
All night she holds vigil, gathering up enough energy from time to time to do battle against the massive stone. As morning comes again, she hears the sound of a motor -- she looks up and sees a helicopter. She waves wildly, jumping up and down screaming for help. The helicopter passes slowly and is gone.
Now she sits and cradles Jean Paul. He is still silent and passively lies in mother's arms -- dozing.
The three of them pass another night this way -- Marie praying for God to send help, help for her baby Rene, food and water. She sings quietly, and is both thrilled and paralzyed with fear when she hears Rene's weak cries.
In the morning another motor. This time it is not a helicopter. It's coming nearer and finally appears at the end of the street. The truck must stop several yards away because of the debris in the street. Four men in red coveralls, gloves and helmets walk toward her. Marie is not sure if maybe she's just dreaming. One man touches her shoulder as she stares up at him. He puts his arms out to take Jean Paul and she seems to awaken from a stupor. In a hoarse voice she says -- as she points toward the rubble of her home -- my baby, in there, my baby.
A woman comes up and takes Jean Paul back to the truck. The men pull on Marie to come with them -- they will get help for her and the child. She recovers her senses and begins pointing at the rubble trying to explain that her younger son, Rene, is still alive under the house. The men cast glances at each other. Judging by the stench rising all around they are convinced that she's gone mad. There are glimpses of body parts peeking through the pile of rock -- no one could have survived this twisted mess.
Then they hear something. It is the faint cry of a child.
Marie frantically starts clawing at the rubble again, her energy renewed at the prospect that now -- with their help -- she'll be able to move the obstacles to her son.
One of the men gently pulls at her. She realizes he wants her to move out of their way. She anxiously steps aside and watches as the four of them struggle to lift huge chunks of the walls -- slowly clearing a small tunnel. With each layer of debris removed, the child's cries are clearer -- still faint, but definitely a child's cry.
At last, after an hour of hefting the large pieces they're able to see Rene. The smallest of the men climbs down into the tunnel they've cleared and gingerly lifts Rene's body to the men above. They place Rene on a plastic shell -- it looks like a tiny canoe.
Marie nervously twists the hem of her skirt while she stands in the street between the piles of furniture and pieces of nearby buildings, willing the men carrying her child to climb faster down from the mountain of debris.
At last they place Rene on the ground next to her. He is quiet. His eyes are fixed on the sky. The men look off into the distance -- not wanting to witness the grief stricken mother and the unresponsive child.
Marie leans over him touching his face, kissing his hands. Rene lifts a small, pudgy arm toward her and in a raspy voice whispers, "Mama." Marie screams and raises her hands to the sky, shaking her head back and forth, thanking God that her child has been spared.
Revived by the sound of Rene's voice, the men lift Marie and carry them both down the street to the truck. Jean Paul is sitting in the woman's lap, wrapped in a blanket.
And finally, as his mother and baby brother get closer, Jean Paul begins to cry.