Earthquake Survivor Recounts Moments of Chaos

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Regine Jean-Francois, a George-Mason University student and native of Haiti, savors the memories of her homeland, particularly those created during her last visit in December 2009.

During her trip, Jean-Francois saw the economic progress Haiti had made and envisioned what her country– the first independent nation in Latin America – could become.

“This Christmas was my best in Haiti,” Jean-Francois. “For me it was the first time we started to make one step forward. Articles came out that prices were going down on vegetables and prices were going down on gas.”

Buoyed by her positive experience, Jean-Francois prepared to head back to the United States on Jan. 11 and continue her studies. But her plans became an afterthought on Jan. 12 when the placid afternoon calm was shattered by 40 seconds of underground churning.

“I was in my mom’s office while she was working and I was waiting on her to go home,” said Jean-Francois. “I was chatting on the computer and she was making one more phone call before we could leave the office.

“I told her, ‘It’s 4:30; we have to leave now.’ She told me she was almost done with work and she had to make one last phone call.”

Her mother, Dr. Dianne Jean-Francois, country director for the Catholic Medical Mission Board (CMMB), never completed that last phone call. Just as the mother and daughter ended their conversation, Regine heard a sound she could only compare to drilling.

“[The earthquake] started shaking the building,” she said. “We’ve had earthquakes in Haiti before but they only last three or four seconds usually.”

Rattled, but still poised, Jean-Francois said her mother searched the office to ensure no one had been hurt. However, that’s when a stronger, more violent tremor jolted the ground beneath them.

“It started shaking even harder and the noise was even louder,” she said. “We started seeing books falling down, everything on her desk started falling down and even her computer almost fell.”

Jean-Francois, her mother and other people working in the building then began a frantic dash to escape. But by the time the earthquake stopped and the terrified employees had been evacuated, Jean-Francois said more chaos ensued.

“Everybody was emotional and trying to get in contact with their families,” she said. “You had to call each number several times to get in touch.”

Jean-Francois and her mother stayed at the office site with staff members as they attempted to contact their families and were later stunned by the chaos that unfolded on the streets as they set out to find their own relatives.

“People were in the streets screaming for help to search for their families,” she said. “My mother asked this lady if she was OK and the lady showed her two fingers. [They were] completely gone.”

Once they realized Jean-Francois’ father and grandmother were alive, albeit stunned, their attention soon turned to finding Jean-Francois’ uncle. They made desperate calls to several relatives, but no one had seen him. They finally received word from a cousin who said her uncle’s home had collapsed on top of him.

“That’s when my mom lost control and started screaming and yelling,” she said. “It took her a few minutes to get back to herself.”

As Jean-Francois and her family rushed to what was left of her uncle’s home, they were met with another pitfall – abysmal darkness.

“We took the family that was down there and we went back to my house,” Jean-Francois said. “Nobody slept. We all sat in chairs outside in the yard; praying and waiting for the sun to come back up so we could go back down and hopefully find my uncle alive.”

When the sun finally came up, Jean-Francois and her family resumed their search, but her uncle had perished in the rubble.

Finding a morgue became an even greater challenge than recovering her uncle’s battered body.

“As soon as we saw [her uncle], we tried to find a morgue to put him in, but the biggest one in Haiti fell down,” said Jean-Francois’ mother. “We went to all the other morgues in Port-au-Prince and they were either full or they collapsed.

“Then we tried to look for a coffin and that was impossible. By the third day, he was already decomposing so we had to bury him in plastic bags and sheets.”

Despite their grief, Jean-Francois and her mother began to assist their ailing countrymen, bringing supplies to and from the airport and dispersing them to the most languid survivors.

After days of living in turmoil, Jean-Francois returned to the United States at her mother’s request.

Right now, Jean-Francois’ mother is still in Haiti among their people, assisting with the relief efforts in any way she can.

“What she’s doing basically is delivering supplies to the hospitals and helping wherever there’s a need,” Jean-Francois said. “Wherever medical doctors are needed, that’s where she goes.”