Haiti Quake Survivor Chand Recalls Hotel Rescue

January 20, 2010

A UMNS Report

By Linda Bloom*
 
The glimpse of light is glorious.
 
Sarla Chand spent hours in the dark, trying to poke her way out of the lobby of the Hotel Montana in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, to find help for herself and colleagues, all trapped when the hotel collapsed during the January 12 earthquake.
 
Finally, through an opening, she sees a tree and a beam of light from a helicopter. Outside, the sound of voices brings hope.
 
Chand, 65, a United Methodist who works for IMA World Health, made it safely home to Teaneck, New Jersey. But as she reflects on her dramatic rescue, there also is a sense of distress - both for the people of Haiti and for two of the five colleagues trapped with her, who died from their injuries.
 
The Rev. Sam Dixon, top executive of the United Methodist Committee on Relief, and the Rev. Clinton Rabb, in charge of the Mission Volunteers program for the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries, did not survive their ordeal. Dixon's death in Port-au-Prince was announced January 16, and Rabb died on January 17 at a Florida hospital.
 
"I was absolutely shocked when I heard after coming here that Sam didn't make it in Port-au-Prince," Chand says. The news about Rabb was another blow. "My heart is broken. I've known them for so many years. It's a big loss."
 
Chand and her other trapped colleagues - the Rev. Jim Gulley, an UMCOR consultant, and Rick Santos and Ann Varghese, both with IMA World Health - returned home on January 15.
 
This was not Chand's first visit to Haiti or the Hotel Montana. Her agency has been implementing a successful USAID-funded program designed to eliminate two tropical diseases. In Haiti, she explains, "we do an annual mass drug administration to the community and the school system."
 
Meeting at the hotel
 
The IMA staff had a meeting scheduled January 12 at the Hotel Montana with representatives from their partners in the program, the Haiti Ministry and Health and the University of Notre Dame.
 
"We had met Sam and Jim at the Methodist office the evening before," she recalls. "One of the things we were discussing was how IMA can help revitalize the clinics in Haiti."
 
The group also needed to discuss an agricultural project in the Democratic Republic of Congo, so they agreed to meet for dinner at the hotel after the IMA meeting.
 
Dixon and Rabb arrived at the hotel around 4:50 p.m. "Clint was with them, which I had not expected," Chand says. "I was very pleased to see Clint. We introduced ourselves and then we said, 'Let’s go to the restaurant.'"
 
Chand estimates she was about two or three steps behind the rest of the group because she had paused to send an email message. Then she heard a noise and was hit on the head.
 
"My laptop bag flew off in one direction, my (hand) bag flew off … I'm just being propelled forward. I don't even have time to think of the word 'earthquake.'"
 
Darkness and silence
 
What follows, for a moment, is darkness and dead silence. Chand realizes she is sitting down. Then she hears her colleagues move.
 
"We are calling out to each other," she remembers. "Those five are in one area, confined. I am separated from them, but I can hear them."
 
Someone in the group turns on a cell phone so Chand can see the light through the cracks. She sticks her hand through a crack and they say they can see it. "We know we are not that far apart, but we can't see each other."
 
They wait for help. Gulley, Santos, and Varghese are able to move a bit in the confined space. Chand hears them talking, trying to make Dixon and Rabb - who are pinned under concrete - comfortable.
 
The next day, they hear the sound of a sledgehammer.
 
"We get all excited that help has come," Chand says. When she hears footsteps and a voice, she shouts out that six Americans are trapped and need help. The voice responds, possibly in Creole, but she can't understand, so she repeats the message. "And the person says 'OK' and I hear retreating footsteps and nothing happens."
 
As the hours mount, the group is losing hope. "At some point … it just dawns on me [that] if I don't move from here and try to find a way out, we are stuck," she says.
 
Looking for light
 
Sometime on January 14, the second day after the earthquake, Chand gropes on the ground and finds a long stick. She asks the others to turn on a cell phone light so she can get her bearing.
 
Gulley tries to get out of the space where he and the others are trapped and she moves to help him. But he gets stuck and she's disoriented again.
 
"I have no clue now where I am," she recalls. She begins searching for a window, for daylight. "I slide, I crouch, I crawl, to keep moving. I keep talking to them. They're guiding me and I'm moving in different directions."
 
Chand finds some windows again, but with her stick, she detects a big gap between her position and the windows. So she backs off, goes in a different direction, and calls out that she has found the hotel atrium.
 
Some windows are blocked by concrete. Other openings are too small for her to crawl through. Gulley tries again to crawl out of his space, but is unable to do so. Finally, she gives up, because daylight is fading. She pokes around the floor to find a space to sit for the night and sees a bigger opening.
 
"I crawl there," she recalls. "I tell them I see the top of a tree and under a tree, lights." Then the voices come. "I can hear the voices very clearly. People are talking. We all together shout and we sit back and nothing happens."
 
Chand cries out again, but is afraid they are stuck for the night.
 
"Suddenly, I see light and I hear one voice. "I cry out, 'Please help,' and I hear some response." She could decipher the words. "Then I shout, 'We are Americans trapped here, we need help.'"
 
'Where are you?'
 
This time, there is a question, in English. "Where are you?"
 
Chand responds by thrusting her leg through the opening. "I can see it, I know where you are now," her rescuer responds.
 
He is a 26-year-old Frenchman who speaks just enough English. She gives him the names of everyone in their group and tells him they are aware that two other people are trapped in an elevator nearby.
 
The French rescuer returns with his team. "They tell me it will take two hours minimum," Chand says. "They started layer by layer, making that opening larger."
 
The process takes almost three hours. With the light, she realizes she is back in the lobby where she had been standing when the earthquake occurred. Their rescuers remove Chand first, then bring out Santos and Gulley. French doctors have given morphine to Dixon and Rabb. Varghese, who is providing translation, is the last of the four to leave.
 
At that moment, it looks like a happy ending.
 
Chand, Gulley, Santos, and Varghese are checked out at the hotel site by the French doctors and then taken to the U.S. Embassy, where they rest for a few hours after another medical assessment.
 
Chand's head wounds are not serious, but the blood has soaked her clothes. They have seats on a flight to Florida and she wants something clean to wear. A Haitian-American woman at the embassy takes a blouse from her suitcase and gives it to her.
 
They have not seen Dixon or Rabb, but Chand assumes that they have been stabilized and flown directly from the hotel site to a hospital.
 
Only later does she learn, one by one, that two of the colleagues whose voices had comforted her and guided her in the darkness are no longer alive.
 
But Chand is thankful to be back.
 
"I'm so grateful to be out of there and alive," she says.
 
Click here to watch interview with Chand via Skype for UMNS.
 
*Bloom is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in New York.