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Workers dig through the rubble of the Hotel Montana in Port-au-Prince.

A UMNS photo by Mike DuBose.

Workers dig through the rubble of the Hotel Montana in Port-au-Prince.

Trapped Haiti workers search for way out


A UMNS Narrative By David Briggs
10:00 A.M. EST March 31, 2010

Afternoon, Jan. 13, Port-au-Prince

"I've got peace like a river,
I've got peace like a river,
I've got peace like a river in my soul."

The Rev. James Gulley, a lifelong mission worker, leads his friends in a soothing, lyrical rendition of the traditional song, seeking to restore calm to the survivors entombed in the rubble of a four-story hotel.

Beside him, their feet pinned under a concrete beam, are the Revs. Clinton Rabb and Sam Dixon. The three are trapped with two other humanitarian workers-Rick Santos and Ann Varghese-in a dark, damp enclosure barely 40 square feet, with a ceiling looming only three feet above.

On the other side of the wall is Sarla Chand, a United Methodist and a colleague of Santos and Varghese at IMA World Health, a humanitarian organization.

For a few moments, they comfort one another in song with the belief that there is hope beyond these dark moments. By the second day of their captivity following the Jan. 12 earthquake, when the temptation even to turn on one another is at its greatest, they need "peace like a river" to fill their souls.

There are no instruction manuals for saints and martyrs. Many church books and art so sanitize the suffering of heroes of the faith that one would think they projected a beatific image amid the most horrific agonies.

Death & Resurrection in Haiti

This series tells the dramatic stories of the mission workers trapped by the devastating quake that hit Haiti on Jan. 12, 2010.

Other articles in the series

The human beings trapped beneath the Hotel Montana in Port-au-Prince starttheir ordeal in common prayer, reciting Psalm 23 and proclaiming with confidence, "Yes, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me."

What little food they have is divided among them. Each person gets a share of a few sticks of gum, and a Tootsie Pop is passed around for all to take turns licking.

At times, they tell stories and jokes to keep their spirits up. Dixon talks about the reunion dinner he plans to host in New York.

Rabb muses aloud that when he gets out, he is going to line up bottles of "Coke Zero, ice cold, and I'm going to drink those one by one." He thinks about it some more and tells the others, "No, you know, I'm going to go for real Coke."

Despite their best efforts, they also get on one another's already frayed nerves. Their movement limited, the agonizing cries of Dixon amplifying their own fears and helplessness and discomfort, even the slightest irritating gestures are becoming magnified.

Move the wrong way, and dust is kicked up that makes everyone miserable. In the darkness, broken glass from a light fixture is a hazard for everyone.

With no sanitary facilities in an enclosed space, each helpless addition to the stench is as oppressive as the dust and the darkness and the fear.

"We damned our circumstances, and God did the same thing," Gulley recallsnow. "There are some things God couldn't control."

Evening, Jan. 13, Port-au-Prince

From the beginning, Chand-who holds a doctorate in human services research from Cornell and has traveled all over the world-refuses to believe she will die in the rubble.

Sarla Chand leads a seminar on Sudan in Powell, Wyo. A UMNS file photo by Paul Jeffrey, Response.

Sarla Chand leads a seminar on Sudan in Powell, Wyo. A UMNS file photo by Paul Jeffrey, Response.

When someone on the other side of the wall says they do not think they are going to make it, Chand chews them out.

However, she is also claustrophobic.

On the second day, she takes it upon herself to overcome her fears and venture into the darkness, each time reciting, "God, show me the right opening, show me the right opening."

Crawling on her knees through the debris, Chand hunts for an opening to the outside world. Exposed nails and jagged pieces of metal and concrete leave scratches and black-and-blue marks all over her body.

Moments of hope at the sight of flashes of light give way to despair when they lead to dead ends.

One time, she sees some windows, and starts sliding toward them, trying to feel for dangerous debris with her legs and a stick. But there is no opening beyond them.

Another time, Chand crawls toward what she believes is an atrium only to find a solid concrete wall.

Afternoon, Jan. 14, Port-au-Prince

Gulley decides he can no longer passively hope for a rescue.

Clearing the rubble under lattice work about 10 inches off the ground, Gulley tries to fit underneath. As he gets his body halfway through, with just a quarter inch of room to spare above his chest, he hears the ceiling directly above him begin to creak.

Gulley slides back in. Sarla Chand, who can see Gulley retreat, says, "Oh, you're not coming."

Only she can help them now.

Fears of getting lost and separated from her friends or dislodging the wrong concrete block and being buried alive recede as time and hope begin to wane.

"God, show me, guide me to the right opening," Chand prays once more.

After two days of searching, she sees another opening. Approaching the spot Thursday evening, she can see the searchlights of a helicopter and the top of a tree underneath the lights. Chand continues to poke around, and finds a much bigger opening.

Continued on page two

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