PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (Feb. 14, 2010) – It’s 6:00 a.m. on Valentine’s Day. A weary sun slowly lifts its head over a sea of tents at the Port-au-Prince Airport, as a group of uniformed airmen gather around a U.S. Air Force master sergeant, as he ticks off the names of volunteers on his clipboard.
In the past few days, Lt. Gibson and I worked 12-hour shifts forecasting the weather, while our other teammates, Tech. Sgt. Fischer and Staff Sgt. Jenkins volunteered in the recovery effort.
Today, it’s my turn to help.
The pre-dawn informational briefing provided safety tips to use for any situation in which you are left scrambling through piles of dangerous rubble, and also introduced us to code words to use if human remains or personal items are discovered. We were also told about available grief counseling.
As we leave the airport for the first time since arriving in Haiti two weeks ago, we see the devastation everywhere. Words and pictures just can’t convey the extent of the damage.
Every building shows visible damage; from cracks, or to the more severe - a pile of twisted metal and concrete. The damage appears completely random, with one building completely intact, while the next is a total ruin. An occasional goat or pig can be seen eating piles of garbage and there is no evidence of sanitation services. We passed numerous refugee camps, some being in U.N. compounds with orderly white tents, while others were random tent cities with multi colored tents, or tarps and sheets, providing the only shelter and color in the area.
What seemed overwhelming were the rows and rows of demolished homes and businesses which were not being cleared. They were just piles of heavy ruin. How will the Haitians be able to rebuild before hurricane season without assistance clearing away the rubble? I can only hope that someone, somewhere, has a plan.
We arrived at the foot of the hill where the Hotel Montana was located and began hiking towards the worksite. I was totally caught off guard. There was no indication that this site had been a hotel, let alone a luxury hotel because all that existed were mountains of concrete, rebar, and general rubble.
I thought of the photos of the World Trade Center. Most ominous was the overwhelming smell of death that was everywhere. Even with masks the smell is impossible to ignore and quickly permeates our uniforms, gear, and equipment.
Dozens of pieces of heavy equipment and dump trucks operating non-stop on the site of the Hotel Montana. The area is divided into four zones, each with a team assigned to an excavator, which is moving most of the large pieces of concrete and making it easier for the teams to spot remains. Each time the excavator collected a bucket full of rubble, I would watch to see if there was anything exposed as it lifted away, and other members of the team would study the dirt and debris as it was dumped nearby.
We were searching for less than 40 minutes when the excavator operator stopped what he was doing and began motioning towards the excavation pit. I climbed down 30 feet of rubble into the pit with one of the Urban Search and Rescue personnel, and began looking under and around bowling ball sized pieces of concrete. It’s important to look closely so you don’t overlook anything, but we find it easier to pinpoint human remains using our sense of smell.
After moving pieces of concrete, we found the remains of a male employee. His employee badge was nearby, making identification easier. The two of us gently laid him into a body bag and carried him up to the waiting stretcher and work crew.
We secured him on the stretcher, and three men helped me lift him while a Kenyon employee sounded an air horn. One blast of the air horn brought all of the heavy equipment and workers to an abrupt halt to observe a momentary memorial, as we slowly made our way to the mortuary affairs tent. Military and civilian recovery workers alike stand silently and pay tribute to the procession and person that we’ve recovered.
Tears welled in my eyes at the somber mood and the respect that was paid one last time to this individual that we only knew as fellow human being. As we enter the mortuary affairs tent, two blasts from the air horn signaled the resumption of the recovery effort, which seemed to take on a renewed sense of resolve.
All of the military members working at the Hotel Montana are volunteers and are doing this work in addition to their 12-hour work schedules. There are U. S. Air Force, Army, Navy, and Canadian military working together sharing the same profound understanding of the importance of information for families and loved ones.
Work continued throughout the morning. I lost count of how many times we climbed down the mountain of concrete and rebar to see if what we thought we saw was a human, or simply another shoe or shirt. I did it gladly and wasn’t upset or discouraged when it turned out to be a false alarm—in fact, it was a huge relief. I don’t think I realized just how many shoes most of us own or take on vacation until I had to look in shoe after shoe to find all of them filled with dirt and sand.
Several hours later, just before lunch we found another person and the morning’s somber observation of silence for yet another earthquake victim was repeated.
We worked for 12 hours with a 20-minute break. We found a total of five people and it was both one of the most rewarding and heartbreaking days of my military career. I will be going back to the Hotel Montana for another shift, and I hope that we can continue to find those lost, loved ones so that they can go home to their families one last time.
Master Sgt. Ken Campbell, 123rd Weather Flight, Oregon Air National Guard