Flight to Haiti

Jan 25, 2010

Shared by: Miles Wright

A Prayer for Bill

It was pitch black and we’re circling Port au Prince in a small twin-engine plane, straining to see the large C-130 and 777 cargo planes locked in long holding patterns around us. Pilots and ground crew alike were tense and testy – some planes reporting up to 20 hours in the air. A voice comes on the radio that we do not have military clearance to land. Our hearts sunk, and we started calculating our remaining fuel. Just 36 hours earlier, I decided to find a way to get emergency supplies to Haiti, specifically the homes of the St. Josephs Family.

St. Joseph’s consists of three Haitian homes that shelter over 100 children from homelessness and child slavery. My 10 years of relationship with these amazing sanctuaries transformed ordinary board service into something much more rare and precious: family. Family members in the U.S. did not know the earthquake’s damage to Port au Prince and could only rely on very short cell phone calls we managed to receive. Tremors still shook the city, we were told. Food and water were already in short supply, and robberies were starting. The calculation, however, was simple – when your family needs you, you show up.

In those 36 hours, an incredible outpouring of love and concern filled the internet with emails and the airwaves with cell calls. Ironically, I had just complained to a friend about quietness in my life. Now I was managing a flood of daily emails and at least a hundred phone calls related to Hearts With Haiti, which was formed in 2002 to support St. Josephs.

Sadly, many of the calls and e-mails were from people seeking loved ones in Haiti. “Can you get a message to someone in Carrefour?” “Have you heard anything about the mission team from Maryland?” “Can you find my daughter?” I heard bravery and fear in all these voices.

How do you pack for a disaster? One T-shirt, a passport and a toothbrush, I decided. The harder question was the supply list. Because of the small plane’s weight limit, it had to be a short list. The decision was to establish reliable communication with SAT phones, clean water with state-of-the-art mobile filtration systems and solar-powered portable generators to keep phones charged. And lots of cash.

The main reason for the rushed trip was to provide medical care for two of our family members who sustained serious injuries: 25-year-old Bill Nathan and Ti Patrick, who is 10. Rumors suggested Bill fell approximately 75 feet from the 7th floor of his home but we could not confirm. Miraculously, two Haitian doctors in the United States suddenly materialized from the network of St. Joseph friends and volunteered their services in exchange for passage to check on their families.

Our final traveler was Ben Skinner, a Harvard fellow and author of A Crime So Monstrous, a narrative detailing child slavery in Haiti. In a previous trip to Haiti he contracted malaria, and Bill nursed him back to health.

The only reason we got into Haiti (when no private or charter planes were allowed to land) was the good folks at EcoAir. Owner Michael Lewis-Keister, with North Carolina and military connections, projected a calm, confident front. We’ll get you into PAP no matter what it takes, he promised.

Over Port au Prince, ground control told us we were not cleared to land, then suddenly told us we were in the fifth slot but with a two-hour wait. Just 10 minutes later, I listened to the best news of the day: "N821B cleared to land."

Miracle number one, followed by: Chaos.

News crews, military, and medics mingled on the tarmac. We had no information about how feasible ground transportation would be. Incredibly, out in front of the airport was Rony, the best driver in Haiti we knew from other trips.

Miracle number two.

As we headed into the darkness, it seemed the entire city was sleeping in streets, parks ... any place without walls. Even in extremely crowded parks, Haitians would not sleep under small trees out of fear of further collapse and devastation. Over the next 24 hours, we heard and saw firsthand the psychological torment among Haiti’s citizens.

Winding our way through open streets, we came upon a large circle of perhaps 100 Haitians gathered around a solitary flaming paint can. We stopped the car. The illuminated faces had both smiles and tears while their voices reverently sang Bondye Bon…God is good.

We found Bill in a small two-room neighborhood clinic with no electricity. His eyes were glazed over and pain filled his body. The doctors quickly determined we had to get him out soon. Our abstract mission suddenly became real and terrifying. We were in a rubble-strewn back alley in Port au Prince, and Bill might die in our care.

Lots of things would have to go right for him to even have a chance. After making other stops around Port au Prince, the night ended on a pad at Wings of Hope, one of our homes about 8 miles outside the city.

Approximately 40 children slept in the small former dining area. All night long the kids would awaken screaming from nightmares fed by earthquake memories. For the next five hours I stared into the darkness and witnessed their fear.

We managed to get Bill into a van and headed to the airport. During this ride Bill told us that he actually landed on his friend Walnus’ chicken and had blood all over his T-shirt. He then was attacked by three dogs who smelled and saw the blood. No one gets a break in Haiti.

At the airport, hundreds of people pushed to gain access to the empty terminal, despite the fact that no commercial flights were scheduled to leave. We were blocked from entering as well. As we shouted over the crowd and tried all means possible to get in, the soldiers kept a tight grip on their rifles and their words. Nothing we said seemed to have any impact. I could tell from their voices they were likely from Ft. Bragg and clearly from North Carolina. I suddenly realized I wore a Duke T-shirt.

“I know why you aren’t letting us in,” I shouted. “Your whole patrol is a bunch of Carolina fans!” They laughed, and suddenly we were talking about barbecue and soon they found their commander and we were escorted inside.

Miracle number three.

In all the turmoil, Bill took a turn for the worse. He collapsed and was spread on a luggage rack on the tarmac while massive cargo planes roared nearby. Medics from France and Qatar worked on him while we frantically searched for our pilot and plane. The chances were slim that our pilot would twice gain entry to the country (he had to overnight in the Dominican Republic).

Miracle number four occurred when we spotted his mosquito-like plane out in the grass. We were given immediate clearance to leave. We headed for the Bahamas. The flight finally gave us time to reflect on the horrors in Haiti while Bill rested on a makeshift bed of backpacks. Dead bodies, the unmistakable smell of decaying corpses, stories of luck and courage and the shock in everyones’ eyes.

Around 11 am on Saturday we experienced a significant aftershock after a night of small tremors, and it sent the Haitians into full panic. In that brief moment, we understood this quake took something far more valuable than just property. If you are a problem solver, you’ve met your match in Haiti – the logistical challenges boggle even the most task-oriented, analytical mind.

Out of the dust and rubble already are fabulous parallels to resurrection and talk of a bigger Haitian family that stretches across the globe. They know the road is hard. Everything is hard in Haiti. But they learn as small children the phrase piti, piti, wazo fe nich li. ?Little by little, the bird builds its nest.

We land in Nassau. Then South Florida. Emergency ambulance at the airport, Broward General Hospital, a CAT scan for Bill. The EMS workers, who heard Bill’s story in a seven-minute ride, took up a collection for him. This man needs to live, they concluded.

Miracle number five is Bill himself. He fell 75 feet onto concrete and suffered broken ribs, an abrasion to his liver and some damage to his vertebrae that will heal over time without surgery. He survived three days in immense pain while the ground continued to shake. He survived a rough six-hour plane flight back to the United States. He survived a 12-hour road trip from Ft. Lauderdale to Raleigh. Despite all these challenges, the pain that seems to hurt the most is being separated from St. Joseph’s children and his country of Haiti. Bill is completely out of his element recuperating in the U.S. He is a man who only knows how to give.

I do not know if Haiti’s prayers will be answered, but the spirit that makes Haiti special cannot be taken away by natural disaster. It is a country of survivors against all odds. Never bet against the Haitian people. Nanpwen lapriye ki pa gen Amen - there is no prayer which does not have an Amen.

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