'I was certain I was going to die'

Caught in Haiti earthquake, Episcopal Church missionaries recount survival
January 14, 2010

Two Episcopal Church missionaries in Port-au-Prince say that they feared for their lives during the Jan. 12 earthquake and in its aftermath that shook the Haitian capital.

When the magnitude 7.0 earthquake hit just before 5 p.m. local time, the Rev. Canon Oge Beauvoir and his wife Serrette were in their Port-au-Prince home, he told Nathan Brockman of Trinity Wall Street in a Jan. 15 telephone call.

"For the first time I was certain I faced death," Beauvoir told Brockman. "I was certain we were going to die."

Beauvoir, 53, is the dean of the Episcopal Diocese of Haiti's seminary.

Meanwhile, Mallory Holding, one of two Young Adult Service Corps missionaries in Haiti, did not immediately realize that an earthquake was shaking the city.

Her apartment next to the seminary was left undamaged by the quake, but she told ENS Jan. 15 in a telephone interview from a U.S. Air Force base in New Jersey that the scope of the disaster quickly became apparent. The earthquake damage was soon complicated by other problems, she said, including rumors of more impending disaster.

She left her apartment building and met her colleagues on a nearby soccer field. It was there that she encountered Jude Harmon, 28, her fellow Young Adult Service Corps volunteer, she said. She and Harmon had been in Haiti since last fall. Both taught at the diocese's seminary and Holding was also doing development work for the diocese.

A fourth Episcopal Church missionary, the Rev. Lauren Stanley, was home in Virginia at the time of the quake.

Holding and Harmon camped out on the soccer field the night after the quake and the next day. Harmon's living quarters at the diocese's nearby Episcopal University of Haiti were destroyed. Harmon's grandfather reported to missionary-support personnel at the Episcopal Church Center on Jan. 14 that his grandson told him in a telephone call that he and his students barely made it out of their classroom before the building collapsed.

Holding estimated that eventually close to 500 survivors were camped in tents on the field that is also near College Saint Pierre, one of the diocese's many primary schools. Haiti Bishop Jean Zaché Duracin and his injured wife, whose home was destroyed in the earthquake, were among those sheltering on the field, she said. About 130 students from the diocese's St. Vincent’s School for Handicapped Children were also at the camp. The school remained standing during the earthquake and students and staff escaped without major injury. Seminarians prepared a meal for them and provided water, she said.

Then, Holding said, rumors of an impending tidal wave swept the makeshift camp. She "ran for my life" up a mountainside for nearly an hour. The stampede emptied the camp, according to Holding. When they returned they found that what meager possessions they had left behind had been stolen.

Beauvoir, who once worked in Trinity Wall Street's grant office, told his colleagues that he is helping to lead a "displacement camp" that Duracin established and that now houses approximately 1,000 people. It is not clear if this camp is the same one where Harmon and Holding sought shelter.

Beauvoir described grim conditions at the camp in which he is living.

"It is hard to get food and medicine because everything is closed," he said. On Jan. 15, the camp had access to just one water tank, but the water was running low. There is a single truck that takes the injured to the hospital and the dead to be buried, he said, adding that the hospital has been turning back some of the injured.

"They can’t take that many," said Beauvoir.

Before the call from Beauvoir failed, he said that Duracin's wife Marie Edithe had been taken to a hospital run by Partners in Health, one of the few still open. The diocese and Partners in Health jointly run a medical clinic, but it is not clear if she was treated at that clinic or an emergency one that Partners had established in Port-au-Prince.

The Duracin's home has been destroyed and "the bishop has nothing left," Beauvoir reported.

The earthquake also destroyed Cathédrale Sainte Trinité (Holy Trinity Cathedral), the diocesan cathedral in Port-au-Prince. Many of the diocese's churches were also damaged or destroyed, including the loss of buildings in Grand Colline (a mountainous region between Leogane and Grand-Goave) and St. Etienne (another mountainous region about 45 miles from Port-au-Prince).

In addition, the Rev. Kesner Ajax, head of the diocese's Bishop Tharp Institute of Business and Technology (BTI) in Les Cayes, and others reported Jan. 13 via email that the entire Holy Trinity school complex adjacent to the cathedral was destroyed as was the diocese's Couvent Sainte Marguerite and College Saint Pierre. An apartment owned by St. Pierre was reportedly still standing. The sisters at the convent were not hurt and were at the camp with Beauvoir, the dean said. Holding said they had been with her as well. The National Association of Episcopal Schools reported that four of the diocese's more than 200 schools were destroyed.

On Jan. 14, Harmon and Holding found a man who agreed to drive them to the U.S. embassy in Port-au-Prince. Holding was able to fly out of the country on an Air Force flight in the early hours of Jan. 15. Harmon, who lost his passport when his living quarters were destroyed, had to remain in Haiti to obtain a new passport, she said.

When she spoke with ENS, Holding was not certain just where in New Jersey her plane had landed. It is likely that she was somewhere in the Joint McGuire-Dix-Lakehurt Base in the central part of the state. Members the Air Mobility Command's 621st Contingency Response Wing stationed there flew to Haiti on Jan. 14 to deliver relief supplies and work with U.S. Army personnel to establish an "aerial port" that can efficiently distribute humanitarian aid that is coming into the country.

"I feel fortunate to get out and I also feel very guilty to get out," Holding told ENS, adding that she had grown close to some Haitians during her nearly four months there. "I know it's going to get more difficult for them."

Holding later left the base for Newark Liberty International Airport to board a flight to Chicago, where she is a member of St. Mark's Episcopal Church, Glen Ellyn. Her mother, the Rev. Canon Suzi Holding who recently left Chicago to become the canon to the ordinary in the Diocese of San Diego, will meet her there, Holding said.

Holding encouraged people to donate money to help the massive relief effort, saying that money for food and water was among Haitians' most immediate needs.

Episcopal Relief and Development on Jan. 13 disbursed emergency funding to the Diocese of Haiti to help them meet immediate needs such as providing shelter, food and water.

Katie Mears, the agency's program manager for United States disaster preparedness and response, soon will be traveling to the Dominican Republic, Haiti's eastern neighbor on the island of Hispaniola, to further assess the situation and coordinate the agency's response to the disaster, according to a news release.

Those wishing to donate to Episcopal Relief and Development's Haiti Fund can do so here. Agency President Robert Radtke told ENS Jan. 15 that "people have been incredibly and wildly generous" in donating to the fund.

"The money is coming in so fast that we haven't stopped to count it," he said. "We hope that generosity continues because Haiti will need help for many years to come."