BRCC group gets out of Haiti
Story by Chris Graham
Mass chaos. People running through the streets ripping their clothes off.
“People thought it was the apocalypse, that it was the end of the world,” remembers Rebecca Evans, an accounting professor at Blue Ridge Community College, who led a group of students and faculty to Haiti last week to work on a sustainable-agriculture project outside the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince.
You are probably aware of at least a bit of what happens next. A 7.0 magnitude earthquake hit just outside Port-au-Prince at 4:53 p.m. local time the afternoon of Jan. 12, pancaking buildings across the Port-au-Prince area almost instantaneously.
Evans and another faculty member, Gail Foley, a laboratory specialist in the veterinary-technology program, and two students in the BRCC Students in Free Enterprise program, Michael Aronoff and Megan Samples, were on the road back to their base of operations at a local school when the earth moved.
“What I remember is just this boom, just this big – it sounded like rocks just banging each other. It sounded like a shot. And the van stopped, and before you knew it, the van started rolling side to side,” Evans said today at a press event at BRCC arranged to give group members a chance to talk about what they had seen in Haiti.
It was “pandemonium” at this point in the story, in the words of Evans, and then reality started to sink in when the group learned that the school, just a quarter-mile or so up the road, was in ruins.
The group made its way to the school on foot and encountered a heartrending scene. The school had fallen in on itself, and its remnants had tumbled down a hill. The realization that the contingent had narrowly escaped death had not begun to sink in yet. Later, Evans would realize that her insistence that her students continue a tradition established on previous SIFE mission trips involving sugarcane had saved their lives.
“My big thing I do with my students every year is I make them eat raw sugarcane so they have the experience of just taking this thing that looks like a stick and eating it,” said Evans, who estimates the “three or four stops” at markets on their drive home added 15 or 20 minutes to their jaunt back to the school.
“That made the difference of us being in those buildings and not being in those buildings at the time of the earthquake,” Evans said.
Their arrival provided needed manpower to the relief efforts at the school, which had been minutes away from recess for its afternoon classes for about 500 or so students from the surrounding area.
Teachers and nuns at the school joined with parents who had made their way to the school campus in the aftermath of the quake and members of the SIFE group in the efforts at digging through the rubble for survivors and treating those who had been rescued.
“The parents of those children were there within minutes,” Foley said. “The fathers of the children were actually the ones taking them out of the rubble. Not being able to speak the language, you don’t know when you’re in the way and when you’re helping. There were probably at least 40 or 50 of them.”
With dusk approaching, the job was made that much tougher. “The only set of lights they had was from a pickup truck that they aimed at it, because there was no electricity,” Evans said.
The work continued with the intensity of a million white-hot suns. “They were looking for their kids. You weren’t getting in their way,” Foley said.
The BRCC group focused its efforts on trying to keep survivors “comfortable, out of shock, giving them water, keeping them warm, holding children’s heads in your laps so their heads weren’t laying on the concrete,” Foley said.
“There were several that were really, really cold. We were holding their hands and rubbing their arms. Just doing what we could, which was really not that much, to comfort them,” Foley said.
Another job evolved – trying to protect the children from the frantic parents trying to locate their loved ones in the chaos.
“Parents were walking up,” Evans said, “and they’d be walking from child to child, and these kids had blankets over them, and sheets, and you couldn’t tell where one child ended and the next child began, and sometimes their arm was broken, so they’d have their arm underneath that blanket stretched out. And these women would start going to step on – and they didn’t know there was an arm there. We were trying to stop them and keep them from stepping on these injured children.”
“We’d just get them settled down where they weren’t visibly shaking from shock, and then somebody would come by and disturb them, pull their blanket off them, and then they would visibly start shaking again from shock. Just trying to keep the people calm, and to gently look for their children – but the women were hysterical, and I can say, I would be, too,” Foley said.
The memories of that night will be memories of a lifetime for the four.
“What I remember is the chanting in the distance, the villages near us, just everybody chanting. Just all night long, they chanted. You’d get an aftershock, and there would be silence, and then they’d start chanting again,” Evans said.
“People would settle for a little bit, and then there would be an aftershock, and everyone would be hysterical all over again,” Samples said.
“I have pretty good memories of the sounds the parents were making when they found their children, that whole first night. It was kind of a mass gravesite that got set up where we were, just for the school. All night, you could tell when parents found their children at that site. It was some terrible sounds,” Aronoff said.
“It was very frustrating for me having some medical training and having children there with severe injuries, and all we have is ibuprofen and Tylenol. We were passing out ibuprofen and Tylenol, and there was a man there who had had all of his fingers on one hand severed off. That’s been sticking with me,” Foley said.
The next morning, the group’s focus turned to its own rescue. Sugarcane was important in keeping the SIFE team out of the school at the time the earthquake hit. Fortune was key to the next part of the story.
The decision had been made before the group had set out on day one of its work on Tuesday to leave passports back at the guest house attached to the school in Evans’ suitcase. Aronoff was sent into the rubble of the guest house to retrieve the bag, which had been picked clean by looters save one pouch that happened to contain the passports.
“That’s the only reason we got out of there,” Evans said.
The team made the call to try to get out of the country at the first opportunity. “I know Haiti, and I knew it was going to get worse before it got better. I knew that food would run out really quickly, that the devastation was so vast that no matter what kind of aid was coming in, it would take a long time, and if people were looking for us, it would just take a really long time for them to find us, and we really wanted to leave,” Evans said.
The foursome eventually made their way to the international airport, which made the chaos back at the school seem like a picnic in the park.
“We spent the whole day in mob scenes and in chaos, and being ordered around like we were cattle,” said Evans, who expressed frustration and even anger at the U.S. Embassy and American officials for their handling of the situation at the airport.
Americans trying to leave were lined up several times to try to set up what one official called “an orderly system,” Aronoff said, then were left to their own devices for several hours in the tropical heat without water, food, anything.
The situation quickly deteriorated to the point where “you could die out there, and they would just leave you,” Evans said.
A man in line behind Aronoff began having a hypoglycemic seizure, “and he passed out, and it was so packed in that he couldn’t actually fall all the way on the ground. He was just unconscious kind of laying on me,” said Aronoff, who tried to get the attention of guards to get medical help for the man.
A news reporter joined in the effort, and the reporter and Aronoff were able to get the help of guards to get the man out of the terminal to the tarmac. The group was able to get the attention of medical personnel.
In the confusion, Aronoff talked a guard into allowing the rest of the BRCC group to get past the door of the terminal, the assumption being that getting everybody out to the tarmac would get them on their way to an airplane headed out of the country.
Even with the help of the guard, that was easier said than done. “We had a chain going so we couldn’t let go of each other,” Evans said. “Finally a guard grabbed my suitcase and pulled me in, and Mike pulled Gail in. And then they were ready to close the door. And I said, We can’t go without (Megan). I can’t go without her. And the guard opened the door, and they wouldn’t – they pulled a chunk of hair that big out of the back of her head. That’s how bad it was.”
On her way out, Evans was sure she’d never see Haiti again.
“Before we got on that Coast Guard plane and were evacuated out of there, all I was saying was, I’m out of here, and I’m never, ever coming back,” Evans said. “But that was just being in survival mode. You don’t think clearly. You’re so focused. I’m even having problems now multitasking. I’m so focused just on what I have to do. We were living from moment to moment just wondering what was going to happen to us.”
All four said they’d want to go back to Haiti, even as the mission they’d set themselves on has changed dramatically since last week.
“What I see of Haiti, and I’ve been working there for three years, the Haitian people have been dealt the worst hand they can ever … . they’re poor, the country is devastated, they have nothing,” Evans said.
The SIFE team and BRCC have come together to establish a relief fund to go toward rebuilding the school that they had been visiting last week.
For more information on the fund, go to http://community.brcc.edu/brccsife/.
“That school was hope for those thousand children,” Evans said. “To handle a thousand children in a day is amazing. And that was the place that they went and had one meal a day because they are so food-challenged. So not only was it giving them education, which gives them hope for the future, it gave them food, it gave them a meal. It was a big part of their lives. And it’s gone. And the children, and more children, are there.
“We have discussed what we think would be a sustainable, valuable, impactful use of that money, and that would be to rebuild that school,” Evans said.
“We feel that without education, there is no hope for Haiti,” Evans said.