Wednesday, January 19, 2011

An Brave Volunteer Recounts Her Experience in the Haiti Earthquake

This is an inspiring story from an impressive young woman I met in Haiti over the summer... her strength throughout her ordeal is uplifting, as I'm sure you'll agree:

January 12, 2010

On January 12, 2010, I was finishing my work day. Jack and Jeanne Munos were heading to the states the next morning for three weeks of vacation so Jeanne was trying to cover as much ground as she could in the last bit of the day. I would be taking over her duties while she was gone and that meant I would be completing many tasks I had not undertaken before. Her husband Jack had just returned from running errands and was heading to their bedroom to take his afternoon nap, and our employees had all headed home. It was about 4:57 in the afternoon and the building which had accommodated some 80 Haitian church members the week before only had eight residents this afternoon; two seasoned missionaries who had just flown in, Jack, Jeanne and me, and the Haitian family of three that lived in the older FOHO building.

Suddenly there was an incredibly horrifying sound, as if a jet were heading straight for our building and just as quickly as that sound hit, the room started jolting violently back and forth. Jeanne and I were across the room from one another and our eyes met. Immediately I knew it was an earthquake, but I had never experienced something like that before. I dove under the table in front of me, grabbed the pedestal leg with my right arm, covered my neck with my left arm, and ducked my head towards the ground and closed my eyes. The last thing I saw was Jeanne's shoes. Black patent leather opened toed wedges. She wore them every time she preached. She had lent them to me in January for a wedding I sang in. As I slid across the floor with that little table I heard glass breaking - the glass windows, glass bookcase doors, glass china cabinet, glass-topped kitchen table - it was all shattering as the building buckled and prepared to flatten. Then my world went black.

When I opened my eyes nothing changed. The darkest of dark I have ever experienced in my life surrounded me. I had no idea the building had fallen. No clue that I had blacked out as the four story "concrete fortress" I lived in had become a 15 foot pile of concrete, rebar and razor wire. I tried to remember where I was, tried to assess how I was. I felt the table leg and papers around my right arm, while concrete had created a pocket around my left arm. My head was in a pocket as well that was created by the protection of the table, a large piece of concrete on my left side and a broken table foot that lay an inch from my nose. My chest was flat against my knees, but my feet were splayed out from under me and flat, sideways against the tile floor. I had taken my shoes off to work, so my feet were bare and individually buried.

My left side had started to fall asleep when I was blacked out and now it was hurting. I used to ice after track practice every day in High School, and the pain was familiar to what I was experiencing at that moment. I tried to tell myself I was back in that ice bath and that soon the numbness would take over and the pin-pricking pain would be gone. My mind searched for information I had read on how to survive being buried alive. I recalled articles I had read in Reader's Digest about people buried in avalanches or mine cave-ins. I remembered that you are to breathe through your nose so as not to use your oxygen too quickly, and to keep yourself from panicking. I remembered that panic sets in easily when one is in a situation as mine, so I tried to occupy my mind with other things. Instead I started searching for something to use to tap on the concrete or table leg. Quickly I found an empty wet wipes bottle, and it made a hearty sound against the solid wood of the table, but the sound was lost in the concrete when I tapped it.

Sometime soon after coming to, I heard Jack crying out for help. His shouts for help were terrifying and wonderful all at the same time. It was wonderful to know I wasn't alone, wonderful to hear a familiar voice, a voice that I could understand fully. As I listened to his cries of agony I prayed that he would be quiet so I could make myself heard. The aftershocks were frequent during this time, and very forceful. Since I was unaware the building had fallen I would close my eyes and wait for it to come tumbling down. I heard pieces of concrete fall and hit the file cabinets, making frightening, loud crashes that made me wish for heaven to come so it would all end. It felt as if I were high above the city on a teetering pedestal, swaying with each aftershock, unaware of when the darkness would become complete, but certain it was coming. And when each aftershock passed without claiming my life the screams of horrified people in the streets would raise up, crying for God, praying for Heaven as I was.

Eventually Jack heard me and asked me questions I could not answer. He couldn't hear my cries and screams, but he could hear my tapping. So, every question was answered with a stream of taps, except the question I was afraid I knew the answer to. He asked if I were Jeanne, and I would not tap. I hadn't heard her and was afraid to give him false hope, but hoping I was wrong.

Haitians came by and heard Jack crying out, they would stop and talk to him, and he would respond in a mixture of Creole and English, but they would always leave. What I didn't know at the time was that these people were walking by in the alley and heard Jack, but couldn't get past our locked gate. I thought they were coming up our 49 stairs, hearing our cries for mercy, and descending again, not caring what sort of shape we were in. I was outraged. Panic began to set in.

I tried three times to rise up beneath the rubble and free myself. I thought how ironic it would be if I were lightly covered, but never got out because I thought I was unable to. All that resulted was the settling of the concrete, and me being further crushed. I sang a little to ward off the fear, but my breathing became difficult, as if there were blood in my lungs. It was actually my lung collapsing, not containing liquid, but causing a raspy sound that was enough to scar my already fragile psyche. I started screaming out loud. Prayers, fears, anger, then suddenly I screamed, "stop being a wuss!" I shut my mouth and wondered where that came from. I realized it was God talking to me. I had just finished reading Job in December and had been particularly taken by the way God had spoken to Job in words that he would understand. God was speaking to me in my own language. I waited in silence and He told me, "Stop being a wuss! Haven’t I always taken care of you? What makes you think I won’t now? You will get out, it may be a few days and you might not be conscious but you will be found, trust me." These words comforted me and calmed my panic, and shortly after I heard another familiar voice; the voice of Russ Cole. Russ and his wife Sherrie are missionaries that had been staying with us since November, but had not been in the building during the earthquake. They had come back to see how we were.

It took another 20 minutes to get me out, but that was the shortest, most glorious 20 minutes of my life. Altogether I was buried beneath the rubble of FOHO for three hours. Russ couldn't hear me, but our employee Jean Wiler heard my tapping and told me to pray as he and my friend Jerry, along with one other Haitian man began digging and praying out loud. Jean prayed, "God, give me a picture, show me were to dig, give me a picture God." As he prayed I nodded in agreement and thanked God, and prayed for speed. In my mind the building still looked mostly as it should. I had no idea that Jean and the two other Haitian men had crawled in a hole about three feet in diameter and were digging in a cave not much taller than that, while all the while aftershocks are still shaking the pile of rubble that lay beneath and all around us. These men risked their lives to save me and Jack. God is the reason I survived, but these men were His tools.

Many people say that my quick wit saved me. That it was great educational training, having grown up in Washington were I was taught earthquake drills. But in all honesty, no table saved my life. The six by six squares of tiles I had been on were unbroken, while all around me all other things were unrecognizable. The bruises on my back were shaped like two hands holding me up. In the hospital in Florida my mother could put her hands on those bruises and they fit perfectly. God was with me and Jack in that earthquake, as I believe He was with many others that day.

The four who died in our building, Jeanne Munos, Erlin Blot, Merle West, and Gene Dufour, were found February 16 and assessed by the military personnel who recovered their bodies. It was discovered that none of them suffered, they were ushered into God’s presence instantly. It is also a great comfort to know that each of these great people were in deep relationship with our Lord and Savior. They will meet me at the gates of Heaven, and they will not bear the scars they would carry here on earth. They are happy and healthy in the arms of the Lord Almighty, and I am grateful for that.

Over the next four and a half weeks I was hospitalized and treated in four medical facilities – The Argentinean UN hospital Dr. Dan Snyder and his wife Dee Dee brought me to the first night, the US Navy facility on the island of Cuba where the surgery that saved my left leg from amputation was performed and the procedure to insert a chest tube and re-inflate my left lung was also performed, North Broward Medical in Florida, where my leg was closed up beautifully by a plastic surgeon, Harborview where it was discovered I needed surgery on my lumbar vertebrae and where that surgery was performed, and also UW Medical Center where tests were performed on my brachio plexus on the left side to look for damage to the nerves, and where none was found. I wish I could beautifully weave the many miracles that God has performed in me over these last seven months, but I pray you will accept my apology for simply providing a list. Aside from the above things mentioned I was also spared my spleen and kidneys, as the spleen was almost nearly removed from my body, and my kidneys almost underwent dialysis. The tear in my ligaments that caused me to need back surgery went unnoticed for three and a half weeks after the earthquake without injuring me further. The nerve damage in my arm has healed and the specialists claim it looks “as if there never was an injury.”

The God we serve is so worthy of our praise and adoration, but even more, He is worthy of our attention. I pray you see the miracles in this horrific event, for they are many, they are thick and physical things that cannot be ignored. It is possible to be brought low by the tragedies, but do not be so blinded that you miss the glory God is creating here on earth, on this little island of Haiti; through His many people throughout the world. We each have a chance to be a part of God's Great Revival. I'm sure there will be more, but this one will be great.