How did one man, buried under 6 floors of concrete, survive Haiti’s 7.0 earthquake?
By Dan Woolley with Jennifer Schuchmann
I had corresponded with Ephraim for several months planning this trip to Haiti, so I wasn’t surprised when I found him waiting for us at the airport when we arrived on Monday. I immediately recognized his smile beaming out from underneath his straw hat with the bright tropical print on the band. After loading our luggage into his SUV, Ephraim took us to the Compassion International office in Portau-Prince, where we spent the day with the local staff.
I’d only worked at Compassion International’s headquarters in Colorado Springs for eighteen months, but I’d already learned a lot and I was impressed. Founded in 1952, Compassion is a Christian child development ministry that works to release children from spiritual, economic, social, and physical poverty. The long-term process can begin with prenatal care and continue through leadership training for qualified young adults who have earned an opportunity to attend a university. Compassion currently serves more than one million children in twentyfive countries worldwide. Though Compassion is perhaps best known for their child sponsorship programs —where donors form one-on-one relationships with their sponsored children through exchanging letters—in the past few years, new programs like the Child Survival Program were already making a huge impact. As one of Compassion’s website developers, I was excited to highlight these new programs online so our donors could see the impact their donations were having.
Typically, my job at Compassion was to take existing photos and videos produced by others and present them online to tell stories about the work Compassion was doing all over the world. But this was the first time. I was the one responsible for actually capturing the stories and images I would need. I had four days to find video that would move donors to care about mothers and babies they’d never met in places they’d never been. I knew David would help me put together an effective piece, but I was still nervous to do the actual interviews and serve as the creative director, making decisions about which stories and images to capture. A lot was riding on this, and I felt the weight of the responsibility.
“We got it, David—we got the story! Anything else we get on this trip is gravy,” I said once we were back in the SUV. We still had another mother to interview the next day, but it felt good knowing that no matter how that turned out, we had gotten what we’d come for. As I settled in my seat for the thirty-minute ride back to Portau-Prince, the stress that had nagged me for weeks slipped away. I smiled to think that this was how God was choosing to use me right now, and I couldn’t think of a better way to live out my faith. I hoped Missoul’s story would impact others as much as it had me.
Perhaps the nicest hotel in all of Haiti, the Hotel Montana has been called the crowning jewel of Port-au-Prince. From the terrace, you have stunning views of the mountains, the coast, and downtown Port-au-Prince. The vantage point made the hotel seem almost luxurious, despite the poverty that waited just down the hill. During times of political turmoil, it was considered one of the few safe places for foreigners to stay.
As we entered the lobby, the registration desk was directly ahead of us. The white pillars and colonnades reflected the bright afternoon sun, making the whole lobby area radiate with warmth and light. We turned left at the registration desk and headed toward the small elevators but at the last second decided to turn our backs to the lobby and instead take the outdoor stairway that led to our room. It would give us a chance to breathe in the warm Caribbean air and get one more look at the panoramic view. We had only taken a step or two in the direction of the stairs when a boom shook the hotel like a fierce thunderclap might shake a house, but instead of windows rattling, the walls rippled as if they were made of liquid. I’m not sure I heard the boom so much as I felt it in my chest. The explosions continued one on top of another, near and far away, like the sounds of artillery on a battlefield.
Suddenly, loud explosions burst from every direction. I felt like we were in a war zone, and every bomb was aimed directly at us. The blasts were followed by the sounds of walls crashing and breaking. Awave of concrete ground unbalanced me as the floor shifted beneath my feet and I heard David’s voice screaming confirmation of what I already knew. “Earthquake!”
The intensity was unbelievable. The violent jerking twisted the hotel walls, severing columns and support beams, causing the walls to buckle and fall around us. As I looked toward the outside stairs, I caught a glimpse of the brilliant blue sky visible through the open-air archway. I watched as the arch swayed and bowed before me, then broke and fell. I never made it to the stairs.
Instantly, the lobby went from vibrant color to black. I couldn’t see anything. Was I dead? Something heavy fell near me. I was forced into a crouched position, with a fallen wall at my back and against my head, where just a blink of color ago there was no wall.
But I felt pain: it radiated from my leg to my head. I tried to take another step, but I couldn’t. My left foot was pinned and trying to yank it free made the throbbing worse. The pain told me I wasn’t dead. Fear, or maybe bile, rose from my stomach to my throat. Was I blind? I turned my head in every direction searching for light. I lifted my hand in front of my face and couldn’t see it. A fine powder coated my face and collected in my nostrils, reminding me of demolitions I had done when I worked construction jobs. It smelled like concrete.
It smelled broken.
The explosive sounds were replaced by the thunder of concrete slabs falling and shattering as they pancaked on top of each other. There was screaming from places I couldn’t see and voices I didn’t recognize. “I’m injured—can somebody help me?” I couldn’t focus. I couldn’t think. I feared for my life. The shaking and the sounds of destruction continued for much too long.
When the quake started, David had been to my left, but in the blackness I couldn’t see him. I yelled again. “David?” Lord, please help me. Help me find David. David didn’t respond. Alone and pinned in place, I panicked. Each breath came faster but also harder. The dust collecting in my lungs left me gasping for air. I coughed. Between breaths, I continued to yell. I felt light-headed, but I couldn’t stop. No longer was I controlling the yelling; it was controlling me. “Please, God, help me and David!” “DAAAAAA—VID!”
The noise decreased to a trickle of rubble. I had been blindly yelling, but I no longer heard my own voice. I stopped screaming. Did I black out? I couldn’t have; though bent over, I was still on my feet, but I couldn’t feel my backpack on my shoulder. It must have been ripped off when the wall above me fell.
I tried to make sense of my surroundings. My senses were on heightened alert, making my inability to see even more alarming. Had I been blinded by an injury or just the dust? I reached frantically in every direction, trying to feel for something, anything—but I grasped only air and the fallen wall behind my head.
“Ephraim! Johnnie? Is anybody there?”
Something altered in my mind. I had been desperately crying out to God— to anyone who would help. But now calm swept over me. The feelings of panic and desperation suddenly vanished, and I was left with only a dull dread that settled in my stomach. It was hard to understand. It’s not that I wasn’t afraid; I was. But it was as if God cleared my mind so I could focus. Though my muscles relaxed, my mind felt as sharp and tense as my body had a few minutes earlier when I lunged toward the stairs.
Pain seared the back of my head, and when I reached to check it, I got a handful of blood. I knew it could be serious, but I also knew that even minor head wounds bled heavily. My breaths were quick and shallow. I could feel my heart race. But I observed those things from a detached perspective, as if I was analyzing someone else in a crisis situation.
As I stood up, I felt something bump against my chest. My camera! It was still around my neck. Fumbling in the dark, I felt for the button to turn it on, and then I saw the small display screen light up. I’m not blind! I pushed down the shutter, and a small light from the autofocus flashed for a split second. I can use this. Thank you, God! In order to see, I flashed the light and then tried to form a mental picture of what I’d just seen. In the pitch black it wasn’t much, but it was better than being blind.
Using my new method of “seeing” in the dark, I tried to look around. What I thought was the wall against my back was actually the ceiling. One side had fallen behind me while a portion of it remained precariously perched against the wall in front of me, forming a sort of lean-to above me. This created the open pocket where I now crouched. Looking at it, I realized that I’d escaped being crushed by mere inches. How had this space stayed intact while the six stories above it collapsed?
I crouched down and lowered the camera to take a picture from underneath the toppled support beam. On the small preview screen, I saw what appeared to be a shower. That doesn’t make any sense. I turned off the camera to think. That’s not a shower; that’s the elevator! I turned the camera back on and studied the picture.
It was definitely the elevator. Not only was the elevator car at lobby level; its door was stuck open. What a miracle! Though I knew elevators weren’t safe during an earthquake because they could fall, this one couldn’t go any lower. The elevator car was a self-contained box with reinforced sides, and the shaft where it resided didn’t share walls with the lobby. The elevator would offer the best protection, not only from falling debris, but also from a total collapse of the remaining hotel walls.
Groping around in the dark, I found the elevator car to be about the size of a shower stall. Attached to the back of the elevator, about waist high, was a handrail. The floor was layered with debris – broken chunks of concrete ranging from small stones to medium-sized chunks, but other than that I couldn’t feel any other distinguishing features. I leaned against the wall to catch my breath and immediately felt the vibrations of an aftershock. It was a big one, nearly the size of the original quake. I grabbed the bar to balance myself but fell to the floor as the shaking, then jerking, increased. Something in the lobby outside of the elevator crashed, followed by the sounds of more falling debris. How close was that? If I’d stayed out there, I could be dead right now.
In the past few minutes, I’d come close to death twice. A verse from the Psalms came to mind: “God is my refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble.” Thank you, God, for being my refuge._
In his new book, Unshaken, Dan Woolley recounts the rest of nearly three days he spent trapped beneath the rubble of Haiti’s collapsed Hotel Montana. He details his survival methods-including using an iPhone app to treat his life threatening injuries, conversations with strangers buried nearby, letters to his family, and the small and large decisions he made that affected his chances of surviving the 7.0 Haiti earthquake that took the lives of hundreds of thousands of people.
Excerpted from Unshaken by Dan Woolley with Jennifer Schuchmann. Copyright © 2010. Used by permission of Zondervan. www.zondervan.com.
For more information on Compassion International, visit their website at www.compassion.com.