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.

By Daniel Woolley, Colorado Springs, Colorado

As appeared in

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.

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