In rush to aid in disaster, unforeseen risk

Mass. man’s arrest underscores perils

Before his unfortunate arrest, Paul Waggoner of Nantucket helped quake victims in Haiti. Before his unfortunate arrest, Paul Waggoner of Nantucket helped quake victims in Haiti. (Materials Management Relief Corps)
By Maria Sacchetti
Globe Staff / January 3, 2011

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It was a frigid day last January, in the middle of another desolate winter on Nantucket. Holed up in a gray-shingled house, Paul Waggoner could not stop thinking about Haiti.

Television beamed scenes from the powerful earthquake: crushed buildings, injured survivors. Everything looked broken — and it was his job to fix things.

Two weeks later, the blunt-spoken carpenter stunned relatives by leaving for Port-au-Prince on his own, carrying a tent, some cash, and not much else. He had no affiliation with an aid agency, but was soon living on a hospital roof, transporting critically ill patients and dodging rock-throwing political protesters to bring doctors to work.

In doing so, he became part of a cadre of renegade workers, “spontaneous volunteers’’ who often descend after major disasters, fueled by a sense of adventure and a compulsion to do more than donate money. They fit no particular profile, transcending race, gender, and wealth, and can help fill gaps in relief efforts.

But aid agencies warn that such volunteers can make matters worse if they show up without training or protection. In the worst cases, they could end up in jail like Waggoner, or injured or dead.

“I don’t think people should be ever jumping on an airplane to wander into a disaster site and do good things,’’ said Dr. Joseph A. Barbera, a physician who worked in Haiti and codirector of the Institute for Crisis, Disaster, and Risk Management at George Washington University. “They’re likely to have as much problems as not.’’

Shortly after arriving in Port-au-Prince, Waggoner, 32, met Paul Sebring, an Arizona photographer and former emergency medical technician. The two founded a nonprofit, Materials Management Relief Corps, and soon everyone seemed to have their phone number, from the General Hospital to orphanages in the city. The pair won admiration and gratitude for their willingness to do whatever it took to deliver aid, transport patients, or obtain desperately needed medical supplies. They took no salaries and worked all hours to help.

Evan Lyon, a veteran physician with Boston-based Partners in Health, an organization with years of experience in Haiti, praised the men as “fairly cowboy, brave people.’’

“The setting called for it,’’ he said. “They chose work that was actually appropriate to their skills and their approach to doing things, which was ‘damn the insecurity on the street, we’re going to move these supplies to the patients.’ ’’

But last month, Waggoner was arrested and jailed at the notorious National Penitentiary after a father accused him of kidnapping his son. The boy had died in February at a hospital where Waggoner was volunteering, and, though a medical doctor had certified the death, the father insisted the child was alive and accused Waggoner of taking him. The Nantucket man was held at the dangerous, disease-ridden prison until Dec. 29, when a judge released him.

The episode also led to revelations about Waggoner’s criminal history in Massachusetts. Two women had taken out restraining orders against him, in 2002 and 2006. In 2007, he pleaded guilty to beating a sex offender, according to his lawyer and court records.

Experienced aid workers say Waggoner’s case is one of many examples of the risks facing these types of volunteers.

Earlier last year, an Idaho woman spent more than three months in jail for trying to take Haitian children to the Dominican Republic. Laura Silsby said she was trying to protect them, but she was convicted of arranging illegal travel and sentenced to time served.

After the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, thousands of volunteers and emergency workers labored at the ruins of the World Trade Center in New York, often with little or no protective gear. Studies showed that a significant number were exposed to toxic dust and had respiratory problems and other illnesses as a result.

In 1995, Rebecca Anderson, a 37-year-old nurse, rushed unprotected to the scene of the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. She was hit on the head by falling debris, fell into a coma, and died. She was hailed as a hero, and her family donated her organs to save lives. But her four children were scattered to live with relatives.

“I can’t tell you they’re great because they’re not. They never will be. The kids all suffer depression. It was very traumatic,’’ said Anderson’s brother, Hank Needham, a school principal in Arkansas.

But he said his family was proud of Anderson’s sacrifice. “Rebecca was a selfless person, and I think most people of her nature are,’’ he said. “We’ve got to have people like Rebecca, or what kind of world would we have?’’

Veteran aid workers say the safety risks are the reasons they have strict rules for volunteers.

The Red Cross accepts spontaneous volunteers in the United States, but it allows them to work for only seven days. Then they must undergo training and a background check, said Christi Harlan, Red Cross spokeswoman in Washington, D.C. Volunteers are never allowed to work in evacuee shelters without a background check for safety, she said.

For safety reasons, the organization does not take fledgling volunteers overseas and sends trained teams to help only at the request of foreign governments.

Project Hope, a Virginia-based health care nonprofit, takes a similar approach to ensure its volunteers will be protected, said spokesman Rand Walton. “We will not send our volunteers into places where the risk is too great that they could get hurt,’’ he said.

Others believe that spontaneous volunteers — if properly channeled — can help serve victims who aren’t getting aid, while holding government and big charities accountable for how they spend relief dollars.

After Hurricane Katrina, Terra Friedrichs of Acton was so frustrated that flood victims lacked food and supplies, she launched a website,, to connect disaster victims to the help they need. The site, which now has scores of unpaid volunteers, tries to point out neglected areas to authorities and big charities so they can help. Yet the organization also warns volunteers against wandering alone into unsafe areas.

Before he left Nantucket, Waggoner had backpacked in Europe and Central America, but he had never been to Haiti and did not speak the language. Apart from the incarceration, his work there also hurt him financially. Nanci Murdock, a spokeswoman for Waggoner’s group, said Waggoner and Sebring fell thousands of dollars into debt.

Some physicians who volunteered in Haiti said what happened to Waggoner could have happened to any aid worker, and they fear that fewer volunteers would be willing to go as a result.

In a statement after his release, Waggoner urged people to continue to help Haiti and said he had found the work fulfilling.

But Barbera said volunteers should carefully consider the risks before heading into a disaster zone. Good intentions are not enough.

“The question is was it safe?’’ he said. “The question is, was it the right thing for the circumstances?’’

Maria Sacchetti can be reached at Follow her on Twitter at @mariasacchetti.