Haitian found alive in rubble after 11 days

  • Sat Jan 23rd, 2010 10:32pm
  • News

Associated Press

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Hundreds gathered for the funeral of the archbishop of Haiti’s stricken capital on Saturday, a rare formal ceremony that captured the collective mourning of a shattered nation where mass graves hold many of the dead.

Meanwhile, as the U.N. said the Haitian government had declared an end to searches for living people trapped in the rubble, yet another survivor was rescued. French officials said they reached the 23-year-old man by digging a tunnel through the wreckage of a fruit and vegetable shop where the man had been buried for 11 days.

He was placed on a stretcher and given intravenous fluids. Rescuers said he was in good health.

Onlookers cheer

Dozens of onlookers wearing masks against the stench of the city’s decaying bodies cheered when Wismond Exantus, clad in a black T-shirt and black pants, was carried from a narrow tunnel on a stretcher and placed in an ambulance. He braced one arm with the other.

“I was hungry,” Exantus said from his hospital bed soon after the rescue. “But every night I thought about the revelation that I would survive.”

Exantus, who is in his 20s, said he survived initially by diving under a desk when the rubble started to fall around him. Trapped in such a small space, he had lie on his back the entire time and survived by drinking cola, beer and cookies.

“I would eat anything I found,” he said. “After the quake I didn’t know when it was day and when it was night.”

“It was God who was tucking me away in his arms. It gave me strength,” he added.

One of the man’s brothers, Jean Elit Jean Pierre, said Exantus worked as a cashier in the grocery store on the ground floor of the Hotel Napoli. The brothers persuaded rescuers to save Exantus, who has a different name because he had it changed.

From his hospital bed, Exantus turned to his family and said, “When you are in a hole I will try to reach out to you, too.”

Brother heard voice

Saturday’s rescue effort started when one of the man’s brothers helped get a Greek search team to the site after hearing Exantus’ voice, said Apostolos Dedas, a mission leader for the Greek team.

“It is very emotional. It is the best thing that can happen to you when you are a rescuer,” Dedas said.

Lt. Col. Christophe Renou, a French Civil Protection official who was part of the rescue team, said rescuers used chain saws, heavy duty drills and hand saws to dig a narrow tunnel to the man and got him water while working to extract him. Renou said the man was buried under 16 1/2 to 20 feet of debris, mostly wood and concrete.

The rescue teams said they sent two women into the tunnel because only they could fit.

Renou speculated the man survived because the building was mostly wooden, which created some air spaces. He said he was not sure if anyone else was trapped in the collapsed store and the team was using radar to check the rubble for signs of life.

“What happened in that spot there is a miracle,” Renou said. “We are really happy he is alive.”

“Life doesn’t stop when a government says stop,” said Lt. Col. Christophe Renou, a French Civil Protection official who is part of a team working at the site. “There is still some hope, but it is going to take some luck and God’s help because there are so many destroyed buildings.”

Authorities have stopped short of explicitly directing all teams to halt rescue efforts, and hopeful searchers continued picking through the ruins. But U.N. relief workers said the shift in focus is critical to care for the thousands living in squalid, makeshift camps that lack sanitation. While deliveries of food, medicine and water have ticked up after initial logjams, the need continues to be overwhelming and doctors fear outbreaks of disease in the camps.

“It doesn’t mean the government will order them to stop. In case there is the slightest sign of life, they will act,” U.N. spokeswoman Elisabeth Byrs said. She added that, “except for miracles, hope is unfortunately fading.”

132 have been saved

All told, some 132 people have been pulled alive from beneath collapsed buildings by international search and rescue teams, she said.

Experts say the chance of saving trapped people begins diminishing after 72 hours. One mother still missing her children said it’s too soon to give up.

“Maybe there’s a chance they’re still alive,” said Nicole Abraham, 33, wiping away tears as she spoke of hearing the cries of her children — ages 4, 6 and 15 — for the first two days after the quake.

Only a small number of funerals have been held since the 7.0-magnitude quake struck, with most people buried anonymously and without ceremony in mass graves on the outskirts of the city. An estimated 200,000 people died, according to Haitian government figures cited by the European Commission. The United Nations said Saturday the government had preliminarily confirmed 111,481 bodies, but that figure does not account for corpses buried by relatives.

While the two-hour ceremony was held for Msgr. Joseph Serge Miot and vicar Charles Benoit, who also perished in the Jan. 12 earthquake, people in the crowd of about 2,000 wept for deeply personal losses.

“We feel like we have lost everything. Our child, our country, our friend,” said Junior Sant Juste, a 30-year-old father whose 3-year-old daughter died when his home collapsed.

The Mass, celebrated in a small park near the collapsed cathedral, offered “a way to share the pain and find solidarity,” said his wife, Roth Boisrond.

As many as 200,000 people have fled the city of 2 million, according to the U.S. Agency for International Development. About 609,000 people are homeless in the capital’s metropolitan area, and the United Nations estimates that up to 1 million could leave Haiti’s destroyed cities for rural areas already struggling with extreme poverty.

The quake destroyed key government buildings including the National Palace, hampering the work of what was already a weak and inefficient state. In the days after the quake, aid groups complained about the U.S. military control of the international airport, which became key for supplies because of a damaged seaport.

Appeal to U.N.

Flights have since increased, but President Rene Preval and former French Cabinet Minister Nicole Guedj on Saturday appealed for the creation of a U.N. humanitarian intervention force to coordinate and mobilize aid in international disasters. The force could be known as the Red Helmets, they suggested, as opposed to the blue-helmeted U.N. military peacekeepers.

“The great problem is the coordination of aid,” Preval told reporters at the archbishop’s funeral. “What’s needed is that the aid be organized at a global level so that it can be mobilized rapidly so there will be no confusion on the ground.”

In Miami, Latin pop stars helped raise money for the American Red Cross to aid earthquake victims. Shakira, Ricky Martin, Gloria Estefan, Paulina Rubio, Daddy Yankee, Juanes and others were scheduled for a Satuday live edition of a Univision variety show.