We were going to be late for supper.
That thought was uppermost in my mind as I prodded the members of my group to conclude their purchases in the One Stop Market, a grocery store in Port-au-Prince, so we could arrive at our nearby guesthouse in time for the evening meal.
It was a Tuesday afternoon, Jan. 12, and we were returning from the day’s visit to a large Baptist mission in Kenscoff. I had left Nashville for Haiti the previous Friday with my group of 10 others from Nashville, Memphis and Rockwood, Tenn.
Leading a group like this involves a good deal of logistics and responsibility, but I had done it many times before. I have been traveling to Haiti since 1992—usually with members of Tennessee congregations of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)—doing short-term mission work. Our denomination has a partner in ministry in Port-au-Prince, CONASPEH, a national council of small, poor congregations from all over Haiti. In addition to the work we do, we learn about the history of Haiti, visit important landmarks, and visit with missionaries of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) who serve in Port-au-Prince.
This trip had started much like previous ones. We visited most of the same places I had before, with new places being added because of the interests of our two new missionaries, who had spent that day teaching—one at a nursing school and the other at a seminary. The rest of us were staying at Walls International Guesthouse, where we were served breakfast and supper and had a place to sleep each night.
On the way home from the Baptist mission that Tuesday afternoon, I had directed our driver to take us to the One Stop Market, where I would exchange some Haitian gourdes for U.S. dollars so I could pay our bill for the room and board on Thursday. But on this day, the manager of the market, Tariq, had no U.S. money. He promised that if I returned in the morning, he would have some for me and we would do our business then.
I helped some of the people in the group buy vanilla, sugar and coffee. I knew we were already late for supper at the guesthouse, and while I paid for some of the food, I hurried my friends out of the store and into our van, parked immediately in front of the double front doors. I was the last one into the van and was about to close the sliding door when it all started.
I had never been in a sizable earthquake before, but I was now. The earth was shaking and rippling. It felt as if someone had grabbed hold of our van and was shaking it very hard.
“It’s an earthquake! Get out of the van and away from the buildings!” yelled a member of the group who had grown up in California.
I scrambled to my feet and ran to the middle of the grocery store’s parking lot. I turned around to look for the members of my group and saw the three-story building collapse onto the first floor—including the market I had been in seconds before.
That made a lot of sense. I scrambled to my feet and ran to the middle of the grocery store’s parking lot. I turned around to look for the members of my group and saw the three-story building collapse onto the first floor—including the market I had been in seconds before. As it collapsed, a great cloud of cement dust rose up and got into my eyes, nose and throat.
I took a few seconds to clear my vision and saw my wards following me. I quickly counted 10 and found the driver as we stood watching all the buildings to make sure none was falling in our direction.
Chaos broke out. People began running in all directions. Some were coated in blood from injuries, and others were simply running as fast as possible. The noise was loud. People were yelling, crying, screaming. All seemed in shock. Once I determined I had my 10 people and our van driver, I aimed us all back into the van for the short ride to the guesthouse, a mere mile away.
The windows of our van had been broken out, and the front windshield was webbed with cracks, but our driver slowly made his way back to the guesthouse. The streets were filled with people, some running and walking with purpose, others just getting out of buildings. Cement blocks and pieces of cement littered the streets. We began to see the unforgiving damage to other buildings.
Our driver stopped the van and pointed to a woman on the grass off to the side. It was his wife, and she was injured. He pointed me in the direction of the guesthouse even though I did not see it. I led our people in that direction.
Our guesthouse had collapsed. Three guests who had just moved in that day and two staff persons were dead. Two other staff persons were injured and were being treated for their wounds on the driveway. We were stunned, not knowing what to do. It was now about 5 p.m., and dusk was settling in.
A few of the guys got beds, mattresses, sheets and pillows from another building, and about 40 guests settled in for the night on the guesthouse driveway. Our missionaries came to the guesthouse to see how we were doing and to tell us their apartment was badly damaged.
With no electricity it was dark, the stars brilliant. During the night we saw four shooting stars. Some of us were very anxious because just outside the house gate we could hear cries, screaming, and the grief that was beginning to grip Port-au-Prince. Inside the gate we were huddled together for a long night, some getting a little sleep, but all safe. A sentry stood guard with a shotgun.
The guesthouse was between two churches. Both congregations had come together after the earthquake to sing hymns of the faith and to pray. While we did not recognize the words they were singing, we often recognized the hymn tune and sometimes sang along in English. There would be periods of silence as well. I knew the pastor was leading the congregation in prayer. Prayers for one another, for Haiti, and even for us were being sent toward heaven and God after the great display of power felt on earth. As the unseen worshipers sang hymns, I thought I heard angels, surrounding us, caring for us, calming us. Unseen things are stronger, more lasting, than the things one can see.
After the very long night at the guesthouse, the manager put our group in the back of a pickup truck and had us taken to the U.S. Embassy, about a 20-minute ride. During the ride we continued to see profound damage to about 75 percent of the buildings. At the embassy we were welcomed but told we were in for a tough time. They had no food for us and very little water. They were not prepared for us, and we would have a miserable time while there. The general consul at the embassy was right.
We went a full day without food and not much water. We were promised a flight early the next day to Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, where we would have our airline tickets changed for our flight back to Nashville. We spent a night sleeping on the floor of a large room at the embassy, with two strong aftershocks waking many of us and sending us scurrying out the door in the middle of the night. The hours were long, but we knew we were as safe as possible and that the embassy staff was working on returning us home.
On Thursday, Jan. 14, after a caravan of cars escorted us to the airport and after an extended wait on the tarmac, we boarded a U.S. Coast Guard C-130 for a flight to Santo Domingo. There the U.S. Embassy was waiting for us with provisions. They had a phone bank that allowed us to call home, and they had some food, clothes and toiletries for us. We had left behind our luggage and everything in them under tons of cement, and all we had were the clothes on our backs. We were taken to a hotel for the night. The next day we flew to Miami and then to Nashville.
As leader of the group, I had a lot of responsibility to get everyone home safe and sound. I would not have wanted anyone from our delegation to have been hurt back in Haiti. It took longer than I had hoped, but all made it home safe and sound. We were welcomed at the Nashville airport about midnight, Friday, Jan. 15, by friends, family, and some people from the media. We were glad to be home and were now able to let loose some emotions we had held in for some time.
Since my return to my comfortable home, my eyes have been glued to CNN, looking for familiar sites and faces. The news reports, though, have been difficult to watch and listen to as the injuries, deaths and devastation only continue to mount. I have been praying for friends in Haiti and all Haitian people every day. I have been telling my story and encouraging people to make contributions toward Haiti relief. I look forward to returning one day to help rebuild churches, schools, and other parts of the whole country.