Life celebrated despite tragedy

Right, Emily Smack, executive director of the Haitian Ministries for the Diocese of Norwich Inc., visits Saturday with Lanitte Belledente, the senior cook at the Mission House, in a makeshift hospital tent set up at the Port-au-Prince International Airport. Belledente was injured during the Jan. 12 earthquake and had to have a portion of her leg amputated. Also visiting are Dominique Georges, left, Haitian Ministries project manager, and Joseph Jean-Baptiste, right, ministries house manager.
Right, Emily Smack, executive director of the Haitian Ministries for the Diocese of Norwich Inc., visits Saturday with Lanitte Belledente, the senior cook at the Mission House, in a makeshift hospital tent set up at the Port-au-Prince International Airport. Belledente was injured during the Jan. 12 earthquake and had to have a portion of her leg amputated. Also visiting are Dominique Georges, left, Haitian Ministries project manager, and Joseph Jean-Baptiste, right, ministries house manager. Tim Martin/The Day Buy Photo

Port-au-Prince, Haiti - After breakfast on Saturday morning, Jean Marie Brutus took a bucket of water and a thin blue rag out to the driveway in front of the house that is temporarily sheltering various staff of Haitian Ministries' Norwich Mission House and their families.

A Mitsubishi Montero stood there, its windows busted out, the passenger side roof of the SUV dented and crumpled, its right side jutting out several inches. When the earthquake hit, the Montero was parked under a carport attached to the Mission House. The carport collapsed upon the SUV.

Last week, the Mission House employees, knowing their Connecticut partners were coming to Haiti and needed transportation, dug the Montero out, popped up the flattened roof … and somehow started it up.

Brutus washed off the dust, then jumped behind the wheel.

"Emily!" he called out in his thick French accent, motioning to Emily Smack, the ministries' executive director. Brutus grabbed the steering wheel and pretended to drive, while around him the other Mission House staff members started laughing. Smack jumped in beside him. The staff laughed harder, bantering with Brutus in French.

And when Smack cozied up next to Brutus so he could put an arm around her shoulder and mug for a photo - out for a drive and a date, the joke seemed to be - the laughter reached a crescendo, until everyone, whether they understood what was being said or not, was in on it.

They were still giggling when Smack climbed out of the passenger side door and walked back toward the house. She sighed.

"Thank God they don't stop laughing," she said softly.

Portrait of devastation

All around Port-au-Prince, the normal and the surreal operate side-by-side. Buildings, demolished, have spilled their guts out onto the sidewalk, where street vendors sit down and spread their wares out beside the rubble.

The market - the word for this scene where vendors set up shop, often piles of fruits and vegetables on mats, along the sidewalk for blocks and blocks - is at a fever pitch on Saturday. Traffic is its usual chaotic self.

These are good signs, Smack says, though she and Kyn Tolson, the ministries' development director, note that, in many places, the city is not nearly as jammed with people and cars as usual. That shows how many people have left, Tolson says.

The ministries' staff had a different view on Friday. When Smack, Tolson, and Tom Gorin, a pediatrician who volunteers for the group, had come to town, the city had not looked as bad as they expected.

On Saturday, as they were driving through different streets and neighborhoods, getting a better look, Port-au-Prince was every bit the hell it has been portrayed to be.

The first up-close glimpse came at the Mission House, which was destroyed in the quake, and the neighborhood around it. The Mission House is in the Morne Hercule section of Petionville, just outside the city limits of Port-au-Prince.

The two-story concrete building was flattened, its roof now a two-cinderblock step off the ground.

Smack stepped up onto the roof where Brutus, Dominique Georges and Joseph Jean-Baptiste, all Mission House staffers, led her to a hole in the concrete.

This is where the rescue took place, the hole that three men, including Georges, chipped out by hand to rescue Jillian Thorp and Chuck Dietsch, who were trapped underneath for 10 hours.

To see it in person is to fully grasp the miracle of the rescue: Who knows how many tons of concrete slab toppled flat onto the floor beneath, with a tall metal safe near a closet the only means to somewhat break the fall of the roof? A miracle, too, that the pair were trapped in a small air pocket.

Smack walked the roof, a hand to her mouth, sniffling, gasping at each new revelation of destruction.

"I don't know," she would say later, when asked what she expected of this visit. "I don't know. But it wasn't this."

Stories of loss, survival

The block around the house was just as bad, the loss of life beyond comprehension. In many spots around this neighborhood and all around the city, smoke from smoldering fires filters out from within the rubble - families forced into rudimentary cremations of their dead.

Smoke drifted up from what was left of Jean Guy Hyppolite's house, where his wife was killed. Hyppolite suffered a broken clavicle, diagnosed on the spot by Gorin, the first doctor to see him. The ministries staff set Hyppolite up with a sling and painkillers. He will have to find his own way through his grief.

Down the street, Loiseau Roberson was about to take a shower on the afternoon of Jan. 12 when, he said through an interpreter, something told him to wait. He instead walked outside to see some friends and was turning to get a phone for one of them when the earth started shaking.

"He said he was scared, he stood up, leaned against a car and said, 'God, if this is how I'm going to die, let me die,'" said Dominique Georges, serving as interpreter.

Roberson lost six family members in the earthquake.

Sheelove Vilcain was reading the Bible in her house and had just closed it when the quake hit. The house, she said, bent on one side and then came back. Part of it is destroyed. Vilcain lost a cousin in the earthquake.

Madame Francoise Jean Louis, who lives in the same house as Vilcain, was at church. They had just finished reading Psalm 23 - "Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death" - and the pastor was about to give the blessing when the quake hit. She ran out of the church.

Jean Louis' niece's son was killed in the earthquake.

It feels hollow to ask these three, standing in the middle of so much loss, what they do now. It feels too soon, too shallow, too neat and tidy. But it is also impossible not to ask.

Madame Francois doesn't hesitate.

"She says," Georges relays, "that God is the only person she's looking to."

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