Voices from Haiti

Bearing witness

The earthquake that ravaged much of Haiti has killed more than 100,000 and rippled through the lives of people around the world, including many in the Boston area

Globe Staff / January 24, 2010

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Among those who will never forget what they witnessed after the earthquake in Haiti are a Dorchester pastor who was in Haiti attending a church conference, a high school student from Somerville visiting family, a Natick democracy advocate checking on a program, a Tufts graduate student doing research, a Somerville parking clerk on vacation, and a human resources director from Brookline delivering medical supplies.

Steeve Milice, Somerville student
Steeve Milice, 17, a student at Bay Cove Academy in Brookline, returned to the United States on a military flight. He had been in his birthplace visiting relatives.

Moments before the earthquake, Milice, who lives in Somerville, said he was frying pork with his cousin, brother, and a friend inside his grandmother’s house in Leogane, about 18 miles west of Port-au-Prince.

“We were just chilling, waiting for the food to cook. I told the kids to go play out in front, and my cousin left to get more sticks for the fire,’’ he said. “My grandmother was in the kitchen, on the patio, and was cooking rice.

Milice had been sitting on a wooden chair, and as he arose, the earthquake hit, shaking the house.

“I looked over to my grandmother, and as she looked up, half the house fell. She didn’t get hit; she jumped away. I looked at the wooden chair, and it was broken by bricks. I told my friend that if I was going to die, I wanted to die with my family. I didn’t know if we would make it out.’’

But, Milice said, everyone ran out of the house unscathed. Outside, massive smoke plumes rose.

Not knowing what to do next, Milice and his family followed a growing crowd of people heading to a field. Along the way he ran into the mother of a childhood friend.

“She was crying, screaming. The quake, it killed my friend. I hugged her. She kept screaming, ‘How could this happen?’ I felt like it should have been me rather than him. A lot of innocent people died. I’m not innocent.’’

At the field, Milice sat next to his aunt. She passed around a jar containing a homemade elixir that many Haitians believe prevents heart attacks, and several people hurriedly drank from it. Milice stayed with his relatives in the field for six days, hardly getting any sleep because of mosquitoes, crying babies, and a lack of water.

“It was the craziest thing in my life. I wasn’t scared when the earthquake came, but it felt like my heart was about to pop out of my chest,’’ he said.

-- Brian Ballou

The Rev. Othon O. Noel, Dorchester pastor
He was supposed to come in on an earlier flight, a travel agency mistake that he credits with saving his life.

Instead, the Rev. Othon O. Noel had landed in Port-au-Prince less than an hour before the earthquake razed much of the capital. As a result, he wasn’t where he had planned to stay, in a hotel that had collapsed and left everyone inside dead, he said.

The 63-year-old pastor of Dorchester’s Church of God Christian Life Center was in a pickup truck on the road to the hotel, stuck in traffic about 10 minutes away, when the city began to shake violently. Buildings on both sides of the two-lane street had pancaked, leaving shattered concrete and twisted steel nearly everywhere. Cars had rolled over. His truck was engulfed in a cloud of debris and smoke.

“It was chaos in the streets,’’ said Noel, who had come to Haiti for a church convention. “People were screaming: ‘Where is my wife? Where are my children?’ ’’

He and his driver continued to the hotel, a taxing trip that took nearly two hours. When they arrived, the sight was terrible. “Complete destruction,’’ he said. “We passed a lot of dead people.’’

He spent the next five days sleeping outside a friend’s house and counting 35 aftershocks, each of which seemed worse than the previous one.

“It was a nightmare that didn’t end,’’ he said. “The aftershocks weren’t small.’’

He sought help from the US Embassy, but the lines there were so long. He survived on rice, plantains, and water until he learned he could take a bus to Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic.

Last Saturday, after a 10-hour trip, he arrived home in Boston.

Since his return, he has tried to make sense of the vastness of the tragedy.

“We don’t understand,’’ he said. “I’m still having nightmares.’’

And being home has not brought him peace.

“When I stand up or sit down, I feel the earth shaking,’’ he said. “It doesn’t matter where I am, I feel it. It’s like I’m hemmed in by all the dead people we left. You can’t cover up the feelings.’’

-- David Abel

Chrissy Martin, Tufts graduate student
Chrissy Martin didn’t worry when the earth began to shake. At first she thought it was a distant explosion. When she realized what was happening, she thought about California and how most of the earthquakes there seemed to amount to little more than a momentary scare.

The 25-year-old graduate student and her group from The Fletcher School at Tufts University had come to Haiti for a week of research, and the afternoon before they planned to leave, they had a meeting to discuss microfinance at a three-story building in downtown Port-au-Prince.

As they chatted across a conference table, the concrete walls of the building began to sway. Then the large wooden table collapsed, all of its legs buckling. Everyone in the room ran for the exit and to a door to the stairwell, but the door was stuck. A fellow student punched through a window and managed to open the door, exposing large cracks in the concrete steps.

“The dust was really thick, and it made me realize that this was a bigger deal,’’ Martin said. “At that point, there was some panic.’’

When they made it outside, they saw that the building next door had collapsed and hundreds of people were rushing into the streets. A wall had destroyed the jeep that brought them to their meeting, and they started to worry about how they were going to get out of there.

“There was an immediate fear of the chaos,’’ she said, describing how a security guard near them put a gun to his head and threatened to kill himself if his wife and children were dead.

They piled into another car and tried to get to their hotel, but learned it also had been destroyed. They ended up at the intact house of the director of the organization where they had the meeting. They spent the night outside, rationing the cheese, crackers, and little water they had.

“We didn’t sleep,’’ she said. “We could hear screams and crying all night. Then there was singing.’’

Two days later, after summoning help from the US Embassy, they crossed through the rubble of the city, passing piles of bodies and impromptu markets selling items such as vegetables.

“We witnessed everything,’’ she said. “It was hard to know what to focus on. It was sensory overload.’’

They boarded a plane to the Dominican Republic and the next day were back in Boston.

It has been difficult to adjust to the old routine.

“It’s hard knowing we left people behind,’’ Martin said. “There’s a guilt.’’

-- David Abel

Delince Dodin, Somerville parking control clerk
Delince Dodin, 31, a parking control clerk for Somerville, had been on vacation in Haiti for 14 days when the earthquake hit. He had just left his cousin’s house in Petionville and was standing on a bridge with his younger sister waiting to catch a bus back to his mother’s house in Port-au-Prince.

“I felt the bridge shaking, like a wave, pushing us up and down. I was looking for a safe place to stand, but the earth was moving everywhere,’’ he said Thursday, sitting in the offices of the Somerville Haitian Coalition. “I held on to my sister and grabbed a pole.’’

The earth continued shaking, and a loud rumbling similar to that of a train filled his ears. After about 30 seconds, a cloud of dust filled the sky, and the sounds of crying came from all directions. When the dust cleared, Dodin saw people covered in soot and blood and with broken limbs wandering through the street, crying for help. Wails came from beneath huge piles of concrete.

“Everywhere there were people hurt and crying,’’ he said. “I tried to help them, to give them first aid, but I didn’t have any materials to help them.’’

Dodin ran back to his cousin’s house. Two of his cousins sustained injuries that were serious but not life-threatening. Dodin attempted to find an ambulance to transport them to the hospital, but none was in sight. Outside, dozens of other people were also trying to find medical help.

Dodin walked for three hours back to his mother’s house, along roads filled with destruction and death. When he arrived, his mother and sister greeted him with hugs. The house had crumbled, but they had been outside when the quake struck. They were not injured.

“My mom and sister are homeless now,’’ he said.

Dodin then left his mother and sister to check on other relatives who lived near the Hotel Montana. There he discovered that three of his cousins had been crushed to death, and another, who had been cooking when the quake hit, sustained burns over 80 percent of her body. Dodin isn’t sure whether she is still alive. Three other cousins have not been found.

Last Monday, Dodin caught a US military flight from Port-au-Prince to Miami and then a flight to Boston, where he reunited with his two children.

“I can’t turn on the television and watch anything, because to me, it really hurts to see all the misery and the death. My body is here but my spirit is still in Haiti because my loved ones are still there, and they’re still suffering out on the streets.’’

-- Brian Ballou

Martha Higgins, Brookline human resources director
As the earth began to shake, Martha Higgins was riding in an ambulance on her way to ferry medical and school supplies to one of the many impoverished areas outside Port-au-Prince.

The road was so bumpy that the 46-year-old from Brookline and the others traveling with her on behalf of the St. Boniface Haiti Foundation in Randolph didn’t recognize the tremors that leveled much of the nation’s capital. The first sign of the catastrophe was a crowd of people that suddenly began fleeing buildings and flooding the road.

“It seemed like it was a riot,’’ she said. “No one knew what to make of it.’’

When Higgins finally made it to Fond des Blancs, the damage wasn’t visible from the physical destruction, which was minor in this city about 60 miles east of the capital. It was apparent from the wailing, a wrenching chorus that crescendoed as one family after another learned about the death of a relative.

“The grieving grew louder and louder,’’ said Higgins, the director of human resources for a financial company in Boston, who slept outside for days as aftershocks continued to rattle the ground.

A group of students who survived the destruction of their university in Port-au-Prince had walked back to the city wearing shoes they had taken from some of the bodies they had found in the rubble along the way.

Higgins and her group began to feel trapped, and they didn’t want to risk trying to make it to the capital by road. Eventually, as phone and Internet connections were restored, they managed to arrange for a private helicopter to take them to the airport in Port-au-Prince.

The scale of the devastation became more apparent from the air.

As they flew over the capital, Higgins saw a curtain of black smoke - from bodies being burned in the increasing number of mass graves, she said. She could see the National Palace, the national cathedral, and many other buildings, all in ruins.

“It looked like the city was bombed,’’ she said. “Everything - all the symbols of national power - was destroyed.’’

On Wednesday, eight days after Higgins landed in Haiti, she made it aboard a plane heading to the safety of the Dominican Republic.

-- David Abel

Marie Lourdes Elgirus, Natick democracy advocate
Marie Lourdes Elgirus, 56, of Natick had been in her native Haiti for about four days when the earthquake hit. She was there to check on a program she coordinates called “Women in Democracy - Vital Voices’’ and to attend a Mass for her father, who died recently and was buried in New England. Many of her relatives in Haiti were unable to travel to the United States for the funeral, so Elgirus organized a service in Haiti.

Elgirus, the director of international education and the study abroad program at Massachusetts Bay Community College, was sitting in a friend’s two-story house in the middle-class neighborhood of Turgeau, in the city of Jacmel, on Haiti’s southern coast. She was chatting with her friend about a popular Haitian author when the quake hit. She thought a truck had hit the house. “We were in the dining room, and I looked at him and he looked at me, and we both had a look of wonder.’’

When the noise and rumbling continued, she knew it was an earthquake.

“I was in Costa Rica last January when an earthquake hit there, so I could tell,’’ she said.

Her friend’s three boys were upstairs doing their homework. Elgirus yelled to them to get out of the house. Everyone rushed out the front door, and as they did, houses on both sides crumbled to the ground. Most of her friend’s home remained standing.

Hundreds of residents poured out of their homes into the street, where Elgirus recognized the face of a lifelong friend. The woman, who was covered in white dust from head to toe, told Elgirus she had been standing on a balcony with her teenage son when the quake hit. The balcony collapsed and the woman and her son fell with it, but sustained only minor injuries.

“She was in shock, holding her son and crying and screaming,’’ Elgirus said.

Directly across the street, at a school for bilingual education, its director, Romel Joseph, was trapped under mounds of concrete. He wasn’t rescued for two days and sustained injuries that were serious but not life-threatening.

Elgirus said she walked for two hours to her house, which also remained standing but had structural cracks. Elgirus pulled a mattress and blankets from her house to make a bed. She spent several nights sleeping on the street, along with hundreds of other residents. Across the street, several students had been crushed under tons of concrete.

“There was the smell of death coming from that school,’’ she said. “The whole building, it’s completely gone.’’

The quake hit after school was let out, or there could have been more deaths, Elgirus said.

Last weekend, she caught a bus to the Dominican Republic, and then a flight to Miami at the Santo Domingo airport. She arrived at Logan International Airport last Monday evening.

“I’ve been watching the news of what’s going on, and it makes me very sad. I cannot sleep at night; I keep dreaming that I’m running and I don’t know where I’m going.’’

-- Brian Ballou