The Story According to Halldor Elias

My Hotel Room (Photo: Doug Hill)

This text might change as I go through the story and continue to remember more and more details of what happened (last edit 2/12). The picture is of my hotel room two days after the earthquake.

It was Tuesday January 12, 2010 at 4:50pm. I stood in the Courtyard of Hotel Florita in Jacmel, Haiti and had just finished writing a response on my Facebook page.

I am taking a course about missional congregations and the importance of bonding and walking with people, not trying to save them. So, some rum, prestice beer, festive food, political disussions, visits to schools, playing with kids, trying to understand creole, prestice beer, conversations with university students, and overall experincing hospitality.

And then the shaking started (7.1 on Richter Scale). I thought for a second and moved to an archway, that lead to the lobby of the hotel. When I was under the archway feeling safe I turned back and the only thing I saw was dark cement dust. The manager of the hotel (Jean) came running and I told him to stand next to me and wait until the shaking stopped. Soon after the shaking stopped I heard Laura and Kellie coming down the stairs barefoot, and I immediately told them to stay with me, under the archway as that was probably the safest place we could access. At the same time, Brad Binau joined us, he noticed that the girls were barefoot and decided to climb back to his room to get his luggage and shoes for the girls.

We started to hear shouting, and soon a group of men came and started to search for people in the rumble. They located Alexandra in the courtyard, the cook at Hotel Florita, half buried in cement blocks. Brad and I, tried to help them out, but our lack of understanding of Creole made it difficult. Then all of a sudden the earth started shaking again (5.8 on Richter Scale, 7 min from the first), and we retreated back to the archway. By that time I had noticed that the part of the hotel, where my room was, a two story building in the courtyard was completely leveled.

Soon, Verbo and Doug Hill arrived at the hotel, told us that the group was safe on some city square, and asked if everyone that had staid back at the hotel was okay. Laura mentioned at that time that we needed to contact Abiding Hope and let them know about the situation. I called Jenny at 5:11pm to get the phone number of the church so I could let them know we were unharmed. Jenny or Binni sent me an SMS with the church’s phone number at 5:17pm and I called the church right away, letting them know we were all safe.

Doug and Verbo, tried to help dig out the son of the hotel owner, which they thought was stuck in the building, and gave a hand in saving the woman in the courtyard. When they found out that the son, was actually safe elsewhere, and the woman had been saved and carried outside, Doug went with the girls up to the second and third floor in an attempt to save luggage. I tried to object, pointing out that the house was not structurally sound, but there was no way stopping them. After few minutes that actually felt like a very long time, Doug and the girls brought all the bags down, and we started to move out. When every bag was out, except mine, Jared’s and Kristen’s, Doug and Brad went to the bar to grab as much water as possible, and threw it in some of the bags.

We then walked the streets of Jacmel to the square where the rest of the group had waited for a while. When we came to the square, many people had gathered there and we noticed some unrest. When we heard a couple of what sounded like gunshots we decided to move on. The next stop was the square outside the City Hall, were we stayed for some time, while Maya went on a motorcycle up to Trinity House to check on the boys living there and see if we could go there safely. We felt a couple of weak aftershocks (one at least 5.7 at 18:12) while waiting with thousands of people at the square. While we waited at the square the sun sat, and it became dark.

When Maya came back, he told us that we would be safer at Trinity House, and we started to move in a single line through Jacmel and away from the city center. The atmosphere started to change as we entered the part of town where Trinity House is located. We noticed the singing of the people sitting on the streets. I don’t understand Creole, but it was obvious they were singing religious songs. As we entered the soccer field by Trinity House, where the boys from the house had gathered, the first song we heard was “How Great Thou Art”. It was a mind boggling experience and I walked slightly away from the group and started crying.

We stayed at Trinity House for a while, until Sarah, young Nurse Practitioner from Alberta Canada, came on her pick up truck and offered us a ride to Jacmel Airport were the UN had set up some kind of center. I heard some mention of a possible Tsunami, and an argument that the airport was safer as it was on a higher ground. Sarah, told us, when she drove us to the airport that she had come to Haiti for the first time 2001, and was now trying to open a maternity clinic in Jacmel. It is worth mentioning that even though Sarah lacked a spare tire for her pick up truck and there was a hugh nail in her right rear tire, it did not stop her. She said something about it being okay, as long as the nail wouldn’t fall out.

When we came to the airport, we gathered next to the boys from Trinity House, put our luggage in a binge and used it to lay our head on, with our feet pointing out of the circle. We slept there or at least tried to through the night. Every few minutes, we could feel the earth under us move due to aftershocks. We heard a lot of prayers and singing that night by the thousands of people gathered there. At around 4am a large group entered the airport singing praise songs, and many of the people already at the airport stood up and sang along. When the sun rose on a Wednesday morning January 13th, people started to gather their belongings and at around 8am, most of the locals had left.

We decided to move into a shadow under a tree that morning, and as the day went on, more and more people started to come back to the airport. We sat in a shadow through the day, slept for couple of minutes, communicated with each other and the people gathered there, and moved our belongings and base, as the sun moved.

(That Wednesday a part of the group left the airport with Sarah from Alberta to look at Tekole’s temporary shelter to see whether we could move there and stay. It turned not to have at least some damages.)

Midday, we contacted the UN, Brad Binau was able to make a phone call from UN’s head quarters to the States, and we got the word that UN might be able to get us to a structurally sound hotel. There were many memorable glimpses that took place that day. A sight of a woman taking a banana and breaking it into 7 pieces giving everyone around her, an older woman breaking bread for the sick, giving away everything she had, Verbo arriving with a suitcase, opening it and taking out shower curtains, using it to create a restroom or a place to bathe out in the open.

Around 5pm the UN gave us a go, and promised to help us get to the hotel. However, they told us that they would not be able to drive us from the airport. We would have to make a trip to their headquarters about ½ mile away. Verbo found a driver on a pickup car that was willing to get us to the UN, and from there the UN drove us through town to Cap Lamandou Hotel, where we stayed from Wednesday afternoon until noon on Saturday.

That Wednesday night we met an American that was able to give me a t-shirt and shorts to wear, and an iPod charger from Griffin, so we could charge my phone. I wrote a note for him, to the Icelandic Rescue Team, if they could allow him to use their satellite phone if needed. The American went on a motorcycle to PaP, hoping to be picked up by a helicopter at the airport there. By that time, we knew the road was blocked and would not be accessible by cars for few days (but motorcycles could get through). The hotel had a wireless connection so I was able to use my iPhone to write e-mails and eventually use Skype to make phone calls.

On Thursday the group took a walk downtown, passed Trinity House on the way, and looked at the damages on Hotel Florita. The owner of Hotel Florita, had found Kristen’s bag in the rumble and gave it to the group. I decided not to walk with them, but stay behind, looking at news, and finding a way to communicate to the outside world. I found out that my phone did not charge with the Griffin charger and became very frustrated as I could not communicate except through Laura’s iPod Touch, and had no access to a phone. I went to my room to refocus and take a nap. Still being alone at the hotel I laid down on my bed, and looked to my left and there it was, original iPhone charger, someone had forgot in the room, plugged in next to my bed. I decided to try to use it to charge my phone, went down to the lobby, which was the only place in the building with electricity and it worked. After having plugged my phone, I continued using Laura’s iPod on the wireless network at the hotel until the group came back.

We ate together and gathered for a debriefing/prayer, where we read the Emmaus story and answered the Question: “Where did Jesus meet you in the last 48 hours?” The answers were followed by silence and scripture verses.

The Friday was a day of waiting and doing nothing. We hanged around the pool, waited for something to happen, hoping for some news. I wrote an article for a website operated by the Icelandic Church calling for support for the people in Haiti, and tried to stay on top of what was being decided or at least tried.

That day we got news about possible air rescue. I had not followed my e-mail very strictly, and when I finally got the news I ran to Doug’s room, creating a tension filled situation, as my response created a hope, that was not fully justified. I went around and apologized, pointing out that I just lost my cool, and over interpreted the message we were getting. On Friday night there was no more food to have at the hotel, so Verbo’s sister, cooked a delicious meal and brought to us. That night, Maya, told us his story. Story, I had heard partly before, story of hope.

Friday was also the day, when the e-mail came from Chad Johnson at 3:41pm that Maya’s family was okay, definite high point in my experience.

On Saturday, the situation took a quick turn. Around 10am we were told that we might be leaving for the Dominican Republic by a boat Verbo had found for us, and we should go packing and be prepared to leave. The first news talked about Yachts, and it sounded almost to good to be true. At lunch we gathered in a small box car and drove for at least an hour to a small fishing town. When we came there, we waited for a while, were given safety vests, and split up into two groups. When we came to the boats, I was asked to change groups. I got into the boat with my new group and it was pushed into the water. Unfortunately, it filled with water, and the fishermen decided to get us back on the shore and use a different boat. The other boat, hit the water without problems and sailed away, with its 25hp motor. We went to our new boat, the motor was put on it, and we were pushed out, now without any problems, except our motor did not start. After almost thirty minutes of shouting, and various attempts to fix the motor, it suddenly started and of we went. As our motor was 40hp we knew we would catch up with the other boat in a couple of hours. The boat ride for us was pleasant in many ways. The sea was beautiful, the sun was mild, and the breeze was refreshing. However, it was long. After slightly more than two hours we caught up with the others, and passed them.

(Alex reminded me that when we were halfway, it came time to add gas to the gas tank, that was connected to the motor. However, the sailors did not have a funnel. They found a plastic bottle and asked frantically for a knife, ending up trying to cut the bottle with pliers, which did not work very well. I decided to help, grabbed another plastic bottle that was lying around, got a pen from Alex, and cut my bottle open and gave it to the sailors smiling. It was an attempt on behalf to be at least somewhat useful in the situation, were I was of little to no help, were my talents were not a great asset, and I remember now how good it felt to contribute something to the task of getting us out.)

We continued our trip for over three more hours, coming to a small town on the Haitian site of the border to the DR just when the sun went down. It was truly scary to wait for the other boat and after an hour of waiting we knew something had gone wrong. We learned slowly that the other boat ran out of gas, but what that meant was unclear. The fishermen on our boat went back to help them, and after over 2 hours of waiting, the rest of the group finally came ashore.

The border between DR and Haiti was closed for the night at this time, so we ended up sleeping in a half built hotel on the Haitian site. Verbo, found food for us, and we decided to be up early, and go over the border as soon as it would open.

On Sunday morning we woke up early, grabbed our stuff and walked over to the immigration office on the Haitian site. Verbo, was not happy with how slowly the service went and offered the officer to take over his task, and Verbo did. When the paperwork on the Haitian site was all taken care of, we walked over the border, and were cleared by the DR-immigration. We then met up with Rob Barger and a friend of his, he had met somewhere on his travels and asked him to help. Rob called to a motorcycle gang to help us get to the bus station, for the bus to Santa Domingo, and most of the group got a seat on the back of a motorcycle. I was offered a seat in their car, and learned that Rob’s friend had actually had a vacation in Iceland the year before.

We got on the bus, and the trip lasted for almost 8 hours, with constant fresh Caribbean music sounding in the speaker system, ending at the airport in Santa Domingo. I actually put on headphones and listened to Sigur Rós and Jack’s Mannequin’s songs, Swim and The Resolution, for the whole time, trying to ignore the happy music on the bus.

At the airport we got flights out of the country on Monday and Tuesday with American Airlines, without any extra costs for changing our tickets. Doug and Brad found a very nice hotel for us, Embassy Suites, were we stayed until we flew to the States.

I got out of the hotel at 4:30am on Tuesday, took a plane out of Santa Domingo at 8:30am, stayed the day at Miami Airport, flew from there to Denver at 6:30pm, spent the night in Denver with the Witt’s, and flew from there to Columbus on Wednesday with a few minutes lay over in Memphis. I landed in Columbus at 5:00pm on Wednesday January 20th.

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