An hour before the magnitude 7.0 earthquake struck 10 miles west of Port-au-Prince on Tuesday, January 12, I had just finished a meeting at the Hotel Montana on neglected tropical diseases.
I was with two IMA World Health staffers — Sarla Chand and Ann Varghese — and we were waiting to meet three of our colleagues from another organization.
Our colleagues arrived moments before the earthquake hit, and just as the six of us were walking through the lobby we heard a huge noise. The entire building collapsed on us.
We called out to each other and realized there were five of us in an area that was about five feet wide, eight feet long and three feet high, and two of us were seriously injured. Sarla was alive and in another space close to us.
It was completely dark. That first night, it was clear that no one was going to get to us, and we also knew that Port-au-Prince was most likely in very bad shape.
We were in shock. We had no food, no water and only the light from our cell phones. We comforted one another by talking, joking and saying prayers. I constantly thought about my wife and my kids.
During one of my darkest moments, I put my passport in my shirt pocket for easy identification. In case someone found me dead, they would know who I was and who to contact.
By Thursday night, we had been under the rubble for 50 hours. It was close to 7 p.m. when the first sign of help arrived. Sarla said, “I hear voices,” and I could hear people shouting “What is your name?”
After five hours of the rescue team cutting through the debris, I was pulled out by my ankles and carried out on a stretcher in the dark (pictured right). The first thing I did after being checked by a medic on site was call my wife. I was overwhelmed with emotion when I spoke to her and told her that I was alive. Two of my colleagues didn’t make it.
Sanitation, Basic Health and Reflection
As I reflect on my personal experience, I want to continue to advocate for the people of Haiti and for the long-term rebuilding of their country. The suffering and loss is beyond imagination, and I am personally committed to doing everything in my power to work with the Haitian people to rebuild their health systems and their country.
It’s now nearly five months after the quake and most relief agencies involved in the rescue and recovery efforts admit that the country is still struggling to provide more than the basic needs, such as sanitation and basic health care.
In post-quake Haiti, where overcrowding and poor sanitation is common, frequent hand and face washing is an easy and effective way to prevent disease.
My organization — IMA World Health — has developed, in consultation with the Haitian Ministry of Health and other partners, the “Healthy Kids Kit.” Each kit contains a bar of soap, toothbrush, toothpaste, comb, skin lotion, and a new washcloth. Many of these items are in short supply in the country; by providing these kits, we will provide a means of hygiene to thousands of children.
(Click here for more information on the “Healthy Kids Kit”.)
Living through the Haiti earthquake and being pulled from the rubble of the Hotel Montana after being trapped for 55 hours was the most emotional moment of my life. But I don’t want to dwell on what happened to me. I am heading back to visit Haiti ahead of the six month anniversary; before I do, I want to stress that it is critical that all Americans continue to provide generous donations for the long reconstruction of Haiti and support for the Haitian people, who are still suffering and trying to rebuild their shattered lives.
Rick Santos is the President and CEO of IMA World Health. He is visiting Haiti ahead of the six-month anniversary of the earthquake.