RICHLAND – Words come slowly when Richland’s Nancy Nelson speaks about the recent Haitian earthquake. And when they do, they paint a picture of horror, agony, death and destruction she witnessed firsthand in Port-au-Prince.
It was about 5 p.m. Jan. 12 – a few days after she’d landed in Haiti to be with her extended family and friends and give concerts with her longtime musician friend Jean-Elie Gilles – when Nelson, 76, found herself amid a pile of rubble after Gilles’ apartment crumbled.
“The floor went sideways,” she said, demonstrating the tilt with her arms.
Luckily for her, the ceilings came down in a way that formed a small canopy above her head.
Nelson, who suffered multiple cuts and bruises, doesn’t remember being pulled out by Gilles, 46, a naturalized U.S. citizen from Haiti. “My mind was shut out,” she said.
Gilles, who had returned from work just before the earthquake hit, escaped unhurt and also managed to pull out from the rubble his niece and a friend, both of whom suffered serious injuries.
“I thought a truck had hit the building,” Gilles said of his initial reaction to the tremors. But 30 seconds later, he realized the magnitude of the disaster.
You could hear cries for help amid the ruins of concrete, said Gilles, who has a doctorate in French literature and has lived in Richland off and on since 1993. “It was crazy. People running and screaming. Dead people everywhere.”
Nelson and her friends managed to find refuge under the open skies with several other survivors with help from a woman who provided them with blankets, mattresses, bananas and water. Gilles and Nelson said they counted 40 aftershocks the first night.
“Call it luck, chance, fate or God’s mysterious hand – we survived,” said Gilles, who later managed to find in the rubble of his former apartment his and Nelson’s purses that contained their passports and money.
The money helped them secure rides to Gilles’ hometown of Jacmel, about 80 miles southeast of the capital, where a local hotel’s Internet connection allowed Gilles to send an e-mail to Nelson’s husband, Iral, in Richland to let him know they were safe.
The Army helped Nelson and Gilles evacuate on a private jet and reach Florida. The journey to safety wasn’t without a hiccup, said Nelson, who ended up loaning $700 to the pilots for refueling the plane in the Dominican Republic after the pilots weren’t allowed to use their credit cards.
Nelson got home safely Jan. 23.
But her experience has left her with a newfound appreciation for life, family and friends, and infused her with a strong desire to help the needy.
“A lot needs to be done in Haiti. People should be moved out of Port-au-Prince and spread out in smaller communities across Haiti,” Nelson said. “You can’t understand how terrible it is unless you are in it.”
The generosity of strangers in a foreign land helped her overcome adversity and pain, she said. The woman who provided them shelter for two days, the strangers who comforted each other during those dark moments of fear, and the pilots who flew Nelson and Gilles to safety will always stay in their memories, she said.
“Things you thought were important aren’t important really,” she said.