Faith Far Beneath the Surface
For 65 hours after the quake hit Haiti, this young American aid worker was trapped beneath a collapsed hotel. Here's his survival story, one year later.
That Tuesday in January 2010, the Hotel Montana, with its white columns, layered terraces and open-air lobby, was a welcome sight after a long day on the streets near Port-au-Prince, Haiti.
With a videographer and an interpreter, I’d interviewed families living in the shacks clustered around the city, gathering video footage for Compassion International, a Christian nonprofit that helps disadvantaged children throughout the world.
It would go on a website showing our health-care and education programs for new mothers and their children. My notes had almost filled my small Moleskine journal. Now, after a long, bumpy ride back in our SUV, I looked forward to dinner and a good night’s sleep.
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I’d only been working for Compassion International for 18 months. Normally I gathered stories created by others. This was my turn to be on the scene. My wife, Christy, worried about the trip. Because of her concerns, I downloaded a first-aid app for my iPhone, just in case.
“I’ll be fine,” I assured her. When I traveled I worried more about her and our boys, six-year-old Josh and three-year-old Nathan. Working for a nonprofit fit my values, but it was challenging for us financially.
Right now things were strained at home. I wished I could believe everything would work out for us, but I hadn’t been able to focus much on my faith lately, and was praying less often. I felt out of touch with God.
I slung my camera around my neck and climbed out of the SUV, waving goodbye. I glanced at my watch: 4:52. Walking through the lobby, I turned to catch one more glimpse of the city.
Boom! It sounded like a thunderclap, but so close it shook the ground beneath my feet and I stumbled. The walls rippled like liquid–then exploded, sending splinters of concrete, wood and glass flying. There was a rumble I recognized from my boyhood in California: earthquake!
I bolted for the outdoor stairs. An archway swayed and collapsed. A wall crumbled and part of the ceiling fell, striking my head. Everything went black. Pulverized concrete and mortar clogged my throat. I gasped for air. More crashes. Screams, sounding far away.
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I couldn’t see a thing. I felt my face. My glasses were gone. Had something gotten in my eyes and blinded me? Pain shot from my left leg and I realized my foot was pinned under debris. I tried to yank it free, but that made the pain worse. I touched the back of my head. Warm, sticky. Blood?
I’m alive, but for how long? Any second, an aftershock could level the pocket I was in. I dug through the debris and finally wrenched my leg free. Putting my weight on my good leg, I stood. Something bumped against my chest. My camera!
I fumbled for the power button. The display lit up–I wasn’t blind, I was buried. I pressed the shutter down halfway and used the red focus light to get my bearings. I looked around. No way to get out. But about 20 yards away was something that looked like a shower stall–the elevator.
With a deep breath, I dragged myself under a fallen beam. Glass and concrete tore at my legs. On the other side, I hopped on my right leg into the elevator. Not a moment too soon. Another rumble. Debris rained down. The pocket I’d been in disappeared in an avalanche of dust.
I pulled my pants leg up. My ankle was bloody and swollen–something felt broken. A gash ran from my knee to just above my ankle, bleeding heavily. Now what? I didn’t want to die because of this wound.
I felt my pockets. My iPhone...the first-aid app! Thank God I had downloaded that. I pulled the phone out. No cell signal, but I could launch the app. I looked up what to do. Excessive bleeding: apply constant pressure. I unbuttoned my shirt and wrapped it tight around the gash.