Survivor

For 55 hours, Rick Santos of Silver Spring wavered between hope and despair as he lay buried beneath the rubble of a collapsed hotel in Haiti.



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Rick Santos was standing next to the long mahogany reception desk in the lobby of the Hotel Montana in Port-au-Prince when a 7.0-magnitude earthquake struck southern Haiti at 4:53 in the afternoon of Jan. 12.

Santos, president and CEO of IMA World Health, was attending a conference on neglected tropical diseases with two IMA colleague —Sarla Chand, 65, and Ann Varghese, 31. The three had arranged to have dinner with three ministers from the United Methodist Committee on Relief—Sam Dixon and Clint Rabb, both 60, and Jim Gulley, 64. And the six of them had stopped at the reception desk to ask for directions to the hotel restaurant. It was a lifesaving inquiry, as it turned out.

Suddenly, the building began to shake violently, and all six were thrown to the ground. “There was no time to do anything,” recalls Santos, a 47-year-old Silver Spring resident. “Later we heard that the quake lasted 35 seconds. But really, it was in the first three to five seconds that the entire building collapsed.”

Santos lost consciousness briefly, then woke to choking dust and the voices of his colleagues calling out to each other in the pitch black. “The miracle,” he says, “was that all six of us had survived the initial crash.”

Santos spends much of his time traveling in Asia and Africa for his faith-based organization, which provides health care, refugee services and disaster relief to developing countries. This was his first visit to Haiti, however, and although he had brought aid to many victims of natural disasters, he hadn’t experienced one personally.

The heavy reception desk had saved him and his colleagues, preventing them from being crushed by the lobby’s two-story ceiling, which had fallen in one big slab. But they were not in a good place. Using their cell phones and laptops as lights, they were able to see that the space they occupied measured about 5 feet by 8 feet, and was less than 3 feet high.

Santos, who had a few scrapes and bruises, found himself crouched with his back to the reception desk, flanked by Varghese—who also was relatively unscathed—and Gulley, who had a bleeding head wound. Most of the space was taken up by Dixon and Rabb, both big men, who were lying flat on a slab of concrete the size of a double bed. Their legs, clearly broken, were pinned by concrete pillars, and they were in terrible pain.

Chand, whom they could hear but not see, was on the other side of a wall of rubble, in a small area of her own. Many hours later, she would be the first to hear voices outside the coffin-like spaces.

The initial fear was that they would all simply suffocate. But Chand thought she could feel a little air wafting through. She raised her hand to the top of the wall of rubble separating her from the others, and they could see her fingers fluttering. “Feel that breeze?” she said, and they thought that they could.

They tried to figure out what had happened. A landslide? The weather had been clear and dry. A bomb? The hotel often hosted American diplomats, so it might have been a terrorist target. Then a major aftershock rocked their compartment, bringing the ceiling even lower. “That kind of settled the debate,” Santos says wryly. “There were aftershocks all through the night, and they were pretty scary, because our space was obviously compressing.”

Experienced at ministering to others in crisis, the group didn’t panic now that they were victims themselves. They reasoned that since night had fallen, rescue before morning was unlikely. Santos remembered that he had some Aleve tablets with him and gave them to Dixon and Rabb for their pain. They took turns calling out, and heard from two other survivors—an American and a Haitian—who were trapped in the elevator shaft.

They prayed, led by Dixon, who began, “We’re going to pray for the people of Port-au-Prince, because we know this is big, and that they’re suffering. And we’re grateful to be alive.” They prayed that they would be rescued.

Nobody was comfortable enough to sleep, so they talked. Santos hadn’t met Rabb or Gulley before that afternoon, but Dixon served on IMA’s board of directors and had become a friend. They talked about what had led them to humanitarian work—in Santos’ case, it was a stint as a volunteer teacher in Thailand in the late 1980s. They told stories about other, better trips. They passed around a Tootsie Pop that Santos, the father of two small boys, found in his briefcase. They sang “Peace Like a River.” They wove fantasies of what they would do when they got out.

Rabb said he was going to line up a row of ice-cold Coke Zeros and drink them one by one. A while later he said, “No, I think I’ll go for real Coke.”

Sometimes they lapsed into silence or tears. Santos thought about his wife, Silvana Luciani, and their sons, Lucas, 4, and Alex, 3. He imagined her coming home from work, giving the boys their dinner and baths, and telling them stories, and thought: She probably still doesn’t know.

In fact, Luciani had stayed home from work that day, and thought it odd that she hadn’t heard from her husband. Around 5 p.m. she decided to send him an e-mail, and saw the first reports of the quake on their computer’s Google home page. She called a friend who happened to be in charge of Canada’s emergency response team and had contacts at the Canadian embassy in Port-au-Prince, where communications remained open.

At 9 p.m., her friend called back with the news that the Montana was in ruins. Knowing that Rick had been in meetings at the Montana all day, “I freaked out for about three minutes,” Luciani says. “Then I called Rick’s brother, who convinced me that Rick must have gotten out of the hotel in time prior to the collapse, and I hung onto that image.” She resolved not to tell the boys what had happened—yet.

Instead, she told herself that it would be like Rick to throw himself into helping people. She imagined him walking the ruined streets and sleeping in parks. For the next two days, she busied herself with the children, pushing the quake out of her mind until after their bedtime, when she could call friends and family for support. She avoided watching the news, with its awful images of destruction. Nor could she bear to go on the Facebook page dedicated to the missing Hotel Montana guests. Because of e-mail, Twitter and Skype, many on the site knew what their loved ones were doing at 4:53 that day with heartbreaking specificity: In his hotel room. On her way to the gym. Wearing tan trousers and a tan checked shirt.

Under the rubble of the Montana, cell phones were now used as clocks to watch the minutes crawl by. Finally, around 7 on the morning after the earthquake, Chand alerted the others to the sound of helicopters. They heard sledgehammers directly above them and shouted, “Help! Help!” with all their strength. They heard a voice in Creole: “Who’s there? How many are you? Are you injured?”

“There are eight of us and, no, we’re not well,” they called back. Then silence. They waited. As the long day passed, hope and patience gave way to frustration. “I’ve done humanitarian work for 20 years, and you never just leave someone like that,” Santos says. “You tell an injured person very concretely, ‘Don’t worry, I’ll be back in an hour, or someone else will be.’”

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