It was like being in a canoe on a rolling ocean.
When the earthquake rocked Port-au-Prince on Jan. 12, Marilyn McIlroy, Deb Paton and Lois McLaughlin were standing on a third-floor balcony overlooking their guest house.
“Get down!” McLaughlin called as the balcony heaved beneath their feet. The three women were thrown around like rag dolls, and McIlroy began praying out loud.
Sitting beside the pool, Marilyn Raymer, Alice Soeder and Laura Steckley were tossed back and forth in their deck chairs. Water slopped out of the pool and soaked their legs.
Very quickly, the women realized they needed to get away from the building. The wall was cracked and pieces of cement were falling onto the aluminum awning above them.
They scrambled over the wall that surrounded the compound and a few minutes later, the trio from the balcony joined them. That was when they realized that the seventh member of the group, Yvonne Martin, was missing. She had gone inside to change and was in the guest house when it collapsed.
Looking at the five foot-high pile of rubble where the two-storey building had stood, they knew she was somewhere in there.
“It just pancaked,” Raymer said. “I knew right from the beginning that Yvonne could not possibly have gotten out.”
Raymer, Soeder and McIlroy sat around Soeder’s kitchen table Tuesday, piecing together the events around the magnitude-7 quake. The seven women were in Haiti to set up clinics in rural villages in the northern part of the country. McIlroy and Raymer are both nurses from Elmira and Steckley is from Bamberg. McLaughlin, a doctor, has a practice in Waterloo. Paton is from Barrie and the only non-local woman on the trip, but used to live and work in Waterloo. Soeder, the only non-medical member of the team, was getting a taste for mission work with her first trip overseas.
Soeder had never been through an earthquake before and couldn’t process what was happening.
“I couldn’t believe it. ‘This can’t be an earthquake. No one said anything about earthquakes when I signed up for this.’”
The street outside their guest house was in chaos after the quake. Houses had collapsed, sending clouds of dust into the air; people were running down the street and vehicles were trying to make their way through the debris.
The group headed back inside the compound, where guests and staff converged on the parking lot. Worried about aftershocks, they spent the night there, sleeping outside.
Some of the guests and staff were injured in the quake and the nurses switched into medical mode. Their clothes were buried in the rubble but the suitcases that held their medical supplies were in the building that was still standing.
Raymer took on the job of letting people back in Canada know that Yvonne was in the guesthouse that collapsed and the rest of the group was safe. With no way to recharge the phone, she used it sparingly, not realizing that her brief texts were the main source of information coming out of the country.
In the morning, the manager of the guesthouse brought what food he could find – cheesies and crackers – and the news that they were to go to the Canadian embassy. The group was reluctant to leave while Yvonne’s body was still under the rubble, but there was no food or water at the guesthouse and the manager was concerned about their security.
The Canadian embassy had also been damaged by the quake, so staff were sleeping in their cars and meeting on the tennis court. It was a sign of how disrupted communications in the capital were that embassy staff didn’t know whether the airport was functioning.
There were around 100 Canadians on the embassy grounds, waiting for flights out of the country. A number of the people were injured and had just been left. The embassy had six or eight first-aid kits so the medical team set up a makeshift hospital in a tent, settled their patients on lounge chairs and started cleaning wounds and splinting fractures.
Treating their fellow Canadians was some consolation for not being able to do more and having to abandon their original mission. The villages on their itinerary are 75 miles from Port-au-Prince and weren’t damaged by the earthquake but will be feeling its effects in different ways. Fuel and food – including essentials like rice, corn, flour and sugar – are imported through the capital. Even if the team could get from Port-au-Prince to their destination, the villages wouldn’t have the food and supplies to support them.
Wednesday night was spent on the embassy grounds. On Thursday, they were among a group of Canadians loaded in a bus and SUVs and taken to the airport with a UN escort. They spent the afternoon on the tarmac waiting to hear when and how they would return home. Hot, hungry and dehydrated, they were grateful for the shade of a giant mango tree.
Finally around 7 p.m., a C-17 military cargo plane was loaded up. Among the passengers were several injured patients and the crew didn’t have enough medical personnel to look after them. The Elmira contingent volunteered to help and spent the flight to Montreal holding IV drips and checking vital signs.
In Montreal, the Red Cross gave them food and hotel vouchers. They were also offered vouchers for clothes but decided getting home to their families was more important.
The devastation that spread out below them as the plane took off isn’t the last the women will see of the country. McIlroy wants to see their original mission completed and medical care delivered to the rural villages. Raymer’s husband Bob is determined that they will help the country rebuild. And Soeder still has yet to experience a real mission.
“I would like to try the mission again. If we can get through an earthquake, surely we can get through a mission.”