Haiti earthquake diary: Eyewitness to a Miami-Dade team rescue

Five days after the Haiti quake, a Miami-Dade County rescue team digs into a collapsed home, attempting to pull three children out.

By , Correspondent

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    Haitians transport a television on a motorcycle in downtown Port-au-Prince January 23. Haiti on Saturday mourned its earthquake dead and rescuers freed another survivor from the rubble, while victims struggled to find food and cash amid a slow-moving aid distribution operation.
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Sunday, Jan. 17

It’s about 4 p.m. as I head back toward the hotel. I decide to stop by the site of the former Citibank, just to see if anyone there now knows what happened to the woman who was directing her own rescue the night after the quake. I’m hoping for good news.

The site looks pretty much like it did on Wednesday, only there are international rescue workers here now. A young woman approaches me.

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There is someone trapped in a house nearby, she says. She’s young, earnest, and pleads with me to bring help. She’s calm, level-headed, and I believe her. I approach the rescue squad, which is from Mexico, and one of the men says he will come with me to check it out.

We drive down Delmas 30, turn left on rue Charlemagne, and go halfway down the block to where a crowd of people has gathered. We run down the alley to a house in the back, climb up the rubble onto the roof of another building, and now we are directly in front of the collapsed home.

There are two Brazilian television crews here, and a bunch of curious Haitians. The Brazilians say they captured the sound of a girl’s voice on their microphone. The Mexican rescue worker asks everyone to be quiet.

One of the Haitians taps on a wall of the house. Someone inside taps back.

I’m breathless. It’s Sunday night, five days after the quake, and there’s someone alive inside and I’m about, I hope, to witness this survivor's rescue. My legs are weak.

The Mexican man starts to remove large chunks of rubble from the hole that seems to have the most immediate access. Meanwhile, I send the girl who found me back to the Citibank site with my driver to see if she can get more Mexican rescuers to help.

She returns 10 minutes later empty-handed. But the Brazilians bring back a rescue team that flew in from Florida's Miami-Dade County two days after the quake, and suddenly things get very serious.

They have two dogs with them, and although we all insist that this isn’t a wild-goose chase, they basically order the Mexican to stand down. It’s too dangerous, they tell him, to continue doing what he’s doing without bracing another section of the house. They send in their dogs to do the initial search.

The dog enters the site where part of the third-floor bedroom is visible. A Haitian, Max, who has been standing with us on the roof, says that is his bed. He was lying on it with his wife when the earthquake started. There is a drawer from a chest of drawers visible, one on the top of the bed, a baby crib, school notebooks, a water pump.

I feel Max’s impatience, watching the dogs, holding my breath.

The dog will determine for the rescue team whether the tap – and the voice that we heard – are legitimate. It seems like a waste of valuable time but I know these guys are professional, that their safety is first, and so along with everyone else, I just wait.

There are about a dozen guys wearing the blue T-shirts that say Miami-Dade Urban Search and Rescue Team. They’ve been here since Thursday, rescued 15 people so far. Just before getting to this site, one of them tells me they just rescued a 3-year-old. A few of them speak Creole. Two of them look vaguely familiar, I can't quite place the faces.

The first dog comes back and the second dog goes down. The Mexican is upset, tries to talk to the Americans, but they aren’t interested.

I’m biting my tongue. I know they have protocol, but I feel the same angst I felt yesterday when I had the 2-month old on my lap and I was afraid that every minute I spent in the car trying to get her to the hospital was a minute too long.

What is the dog doing? She appears to be anxious, running in and out of openings, pawing as if she wants to go right through the cement wall. I think that’s what the Mexican wants to do, too. And the rest of us, for that matter.

Finally, the dog barks. That’s it. Confirmation.

The guys from Miami swing into action. Some are up high on a another roof, some are down low, some are in the back of the house. They each seem to have a job. The dog handlers seem pleased – turns out it’s Vegas’s first rescue, and her handler, Frank Garcia, is delighted with her performance.

The dogs are taught to bark when they come upon a live body that’s trapped. Without that bark, the team won’t go in. Too many people, explains another dog handler, Gregory Strickland, desperate to find loved ones, swear that they hear family members days later just because they don’t want to give up hope. His dog, Indy, has been doing this for 19 months.

When I hear another crew member call the Creole speaker “Doctor,” I realize that the first face I can’t place is Rudy Moise, a well-known Haitian-American doctor and activist in Miami, a man I’ve met many times before. The other man is Florida Congressman Kendrick Meek. He’d been so moved by what the rescue team was doing that he jumped on a plane in order to witness what was going on and bring whatever resources he could.

The rescue team works slowly. People on the roof tell us there are three people trapped: a 14-year-old girl, Frangina; 7-year-old Nazer, and 5-year-old Kevin. They’re not related. They were all living in the house, and watching TV at the time of the quake.

Nazer’s mother is on the street outside the house with 3-year-old Ricky, who she was able to grab when the house fell. Nazer ran back inside.

Kevin’s parents are in the States.

The rescue team works slowly, trying various strategies to get close to where they think the three are trapped. Finally, they are close enough to get a camera in and see movements from a girl’s hand.

Hearing that breathes a new life into the crowd. This is not a voyeur’s trip. It’s the real thing, as close as I have ever gotten, or want to get, to a life-or-death rescue. The scene is surreal. They now have the lights focused on the house, the generator is powering the tools, and the energize crowd suddenly erupts with a cheer.

Shortly before 10:00 p.m., they are ready to go in. Nearly six hours have passed since I arrived, and I barely notice.

Nazer, the 7-year old, comes out first. It’s dramatic. They have him on an improvised stretcher. I stay out of the way as a whole fleet of people attend to him. When I finally get a look, I can see he’s bone thin, skeletal like. But smiling. He points to his tooth, says he cracked it, as though that was the worst thing that happened. He even smiles.

But not so with Frangina, the teenager. She learns, as she’s pulled out, that little Kevin has died. She’s wailing, saying over and over again that she couldn’t see him.

She must have been trapped in such a way that he was behind her and that she was only talking to Nazer all along, not Kevin, too. Her pain pierces me. She’s so distraught that it’s hard to feel complete joy at her release.

Out of respect for Kevin and his family, the rescue team doesn’t extract his body while the crowd is on the roof. We wait for the rescuers to take Frangina and Nazer to the vehicles below before we go down ourselves. Frangina has grown quiet.

In contrast Nazer smiles, gives a thumbs up, and the vehicles drive away.

---- For all stories, blogs, and updates on Haiti after the earthquake, go to The Monitor's Haiti page.

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