Horror in Haiti

A priest trapped in the rubble of a church made phone contact with a parishioner … and then silence. It’s just one of the terrifying stories to come out of Haiti in the wake of a devastating earthquake.

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Four days after the Jan. 12 earthquake that destroyed much of Haiti’s capital, surprising news made its way to Jean-Claude Jérémie, making him jump from his spot at a camp close to the port.

Like hundreds of thousands of his compatriots, he now sleeps outdoors, his home destroyed.

The news came in the form of a phone call.

“The call was from Father Benoit. He was missing since the earthquake; everyone thought he was dead,” Jérémie said. “He said, ‘I am under the concrete, buried here.’”

Apparently he was unable to reach his cell phone until loosening an arm. The call was made to another parishioner, a friend of Jérémie’s.

Among the estimated 200,000 killed during the 7.0-magnitude quake was Archbishop Joseph Serge Miot, leading some newspaper reports to suggest an apocalypse for the Church in Haiti, where Catholicism and Christianity sit in an uneasy relationship with voodoo, which is practiced by some Haitians.

Some stories insinuate that apparently superstitious Haitians will desert Catholicism in droves, due to the destruction wrought on the once-magnificent Notre Dame Cathedral and the loss of so many religious and devout laypeople. Built in the distinctively French style and painted pink and cream, the cathedral rose above downtown Port-au-Prince, now a sea of rubble and pancaked multistory buildings.

“I try to be a very strong Catholic,” said a woman named Joissant, speaking in French. She runs a small street stall downhill from the shattered cathedral, close to a Catholic school. The earthquake took place when the children were not inside the half-collapsed school building.

“I looked up at the church,” she said. “The top (the 100-feet steeple) was swinging round and round, and ground was going up-down, up-down, up-down. The tower fell, through the roof and down onto the floor.”

The cathedral itself now looks like it was shelled. The walls still stand, but the roof collapsed, filling the apse and nave with rubble, and burying unknown numbers of clergy and laypeople.

“There was a choir singing in there when it happened,” said Joissant, pointing to an annex at the front of the building.

Behind the cathedral, the archbishop’s residence is damaged. Next door to that, the Catholic Radio Soleil is destroyed, with many journalists and staff having been killed inside. The station was right behind the towering cathedral.

Workers from Germany and the Dominican Republic continue to sift through the rubble, mostly removing dead bodies, but also looking for survivors. Eight days after the disaster, two children were pulled from the wreckage of collapsed buildings elsewhere in the city.

Traveling around the city, however, one sees huge rubble heaps everywhere, many untouched since the disaster. On Jan. 19, one week to the day after the earthquake, on the hills overlooking the city, an Israeli team worked to find survivors at a four-story high school. Heavy concrete floors had pulverized the light bricks and apparently sparse steelwork beneath.

The focus is moving from rescue to delivering aid, and this has run into problems, as well. The U.S. military controls the international airport, a tiny building with only one runway and capacity to station no more than six cargo aircraft at any one time.

The seaport is damaged, and the streets are clogged with rubble and debris. Roaming gangs of armed men and escaped prisoners add to the dangers for distressed, bereaved survivors and for the aid groups trying to get help to them.

But some rescue work will continue, as people can often survive for days if caught in gaps between large slabs of masonry with access to water, and even food.

Four days after his phone call with Father Benoit, Jérémie said the priest still had not been rescued.

“No, he is still in there,” he said as he- pointed to the remains of the cathedral. He didn’t know if he was still alive.

“His phone battery must have died,” Jérémie said. “We cannot get through to him.”

Simon Roughneen filed this story from Port-au-Prince.