Report from Haiti

Amid the horror, a moment of joy.
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Report from Haiti

Amid the horror, a moment of joy.

-Jane Farrell

Jesse Hagopian and Sarah Wilhelm

On Saturday, five days after an earthquake devastated Haiti, Miles Hagopian, 1, spoke the word his father had been waiting to hear.

“Dada”! Miles said.

For his parents, Americans Jesse Hagopian and Sarah Wilhelm, it was the only bright spot for them since the earthquake leveled the Haitian capital city, Port-Au-Prince, where the Seattle family was staying.

“It really lifted our spirits,” Jesse, a laid-off public-school teacher, told BettyConfidential via phone from Haiti. Email and phone communication from the island nation was clear but intermittent. Asked how the couple’s son was doing otherwise, Jesse said, “He’s been a champ, but he knows something is wrong.”

Read Haiti Earthquake Relief: How You Can Help

In fact, Jesse, Sarah and Miles were eyewitnesses to the worst disaster in Haiti’s 206-year history. Aid organizations have estimated the number of dead at up to 200,000.

The couple came to Haiti on Sunday, Jan. 10, so Sarah could continue her work as an HIV educator. They were staying at a hotel, the Villa Creole, when the 7.0 magnitude earthquake struck on Tuesday at 5 p.m. Eastern time. Although the hotel was damaged, area residents heard that medical aid was available at the site and began flocking there by the hundreds.

The only help, Jesse said, came from a nurse who was a guest at the hotel and an American who identified himself as “J.H.”, an emergency medical technician. Overwhelmed by the flood of injured and traumatized people, the two workers asked Jesse and other hotel guests to help them. And suddenly, the middle-school teacher without any medical experience whatsoever was helping to set bones and clean and bandage wounds.

The volunteers worked frantically in virtual darkness (the country’s electricity had gone out, and the only light came from the headlights of a few cars) without any medical supplies, using wood and hotel sheets to treat wounds and stabilize broken limbs. Some people lived; too many others died. Jesse remembers one case in particular.

“There was a little boy, about six years old,” he said. The child, crushed in the collapse of a building, had suffered a broken leg, and his bone stuck out of his flesh. “His father just kept giving him mouth-to-mouth resuscitation,” Jesse said. “He never stopped.”

Despite the team’s efforts, the boy died . “I just kept thinking how that father felt,” Jesse said, “how this could have been my son.” As he spoke throughout the interview, Jesse’s voice trembled from emotion and exhaustion.

The work continued for the next day and a half amid worsening conditions in Port-au-Prince. Decaying bodies piled up in streets already choked with rubble from collapsed buildings. More bodies lay beneath the wreckage. “The stench is everywhere,” Jesse said. “Everyone is wearing some kind of mask, even a strip torn off their shirt.”

For days around the clock, he said, the sounds of human agony never stopped. “You used to wake up to the sounds of chickens scratching,” he said, “but now there were people screaming and crying and praying.” Whenever another victim died, the crying grew louder.

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