Haiti earthquake relief: Voices in rubble drive one rescue team

As Haiti earthquake relief efforts continue, one unit from south Florida works to free two people trapped near each other in a collapsed supermarket – and hopes it will find more.

By , Staff Writer

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    Timothy Gleason, a firefighter from FEMA Southern Florida task force, has help washing the dust of his face while working to rescue people believed to be alive in the wreckage of El Caribe market in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, January 16, 2009. The largest grocery store in Haiti, El Caribe was five stories tall. Four days after a 7.0 magnitude earthquake struck the region, rescue efforts continue.
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    Firefighters pass a case of water bottles over the roof of El Caribe market in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, January 16, 2009. Rescue efforts continue as up to five people are believed to be alive in the wreckage.
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    Firefighters from FEMA Southern Florida task force work to rescue up to five people believed to be alive in the wreckage of El Caribe market in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, January 16, 2009.
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Homes slapped together, offices and stores constructed with no building codes: The complete devastation of parts of Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince, is rooted in part in structural weaknesses that posed threats even before the quake hit. Now, rescuers are having to negotiate the consequences of substandard construction as they rush to save lives. For many of them, it's the most perilous task they’ve ever been assigned.

Jose Medina, a firefighter from south Florida, hoists a ladder onto what remains of El Caribe, a once-bustling supermarket that folded into itself during the quake. Pieces of concrete begin to fall around him, and two jagged slabs of concrete dangle from the remains of the roof. “Any of this could move at any second,” he says.

The supermarket sold everything from produce to electronic products, and the manager, Samer Tahmoush, says it was always busiest from 4 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. So when the 7.0 magnitude quake hit at 5 p.m. on Jan. 12, scores of people were trapped inside.

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Most of the damage came at the front of the market, which was built in 1993, prompting people to run to the back, says Mr. Tahmoush. He was there when it collapsed, and helped others get out. He continues to do what he can. “I haven’t slept because I know there are people waiting for me,” he says.

Two of those people are Ariel, a 17-year-old, as well as another man. They have been trapped near each other now for more than 60 hours, and have been communicating with rescue workers. Both have told the team that they are healthy – just thirsty. They have also said that they can see a red light flashing from a radio tower, information that has helped pinpoint their location.

Communication is painstaking – each time members of the team want to talk to Ariel and the other man, they must turn off their generators and equipment.

 “Ariel can you hear me?” one calls out. “If you can hear me, tap on the walls.” Then he says, “Ariel, talk to me.”

“They’re going though ups and downs,” says Charles McDermott, who belongs to the squad and is coordinating the rescue.

The south Florida team, which has more than 70 people and is on its first international assignment, has been looking at photos of how the market was built to orient their search. Rescuers have already cut through three of the store’s five floors, but it’s difficult work, complicated by masses of concrete, food, and clothes that they must negotiate.

“There are a lot of unstable things,” says Mr. Medina, who has a seven-year-old and one-year-old at home. He notes that rescuers are moving faster than they would like because of the urgency of trying to save lives. “We don’t know if this building was built the way it was supposed to be built,” he says, adding, “You just want to get [people] out.”

Family members have congregated on the fringes of rescue workers’ area, some telling workers they’ve received texts from relatives inside. There is more hope here than in many other places, because survivors could have access to water and food.

Medina, who responded to hurricanes Katrina and Wilma, says this is the worst disaster he’s ever seen. He has not slept, and meals have consisted of power bars and water. But his focus is on the people inside. “This is what we train for,” he says.

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