Rescue in Haiti

Monday, January 18th 2010

This story was written by Brandy Paternoster along with a collaborative effort of the entire recon team

Florida Task Force 1 USAR Team

Jairo Rodriguez, Recon Team Leader
Steve Driscoll, Canine Handler
Blaze, Canine Extraordinaire
Gary Fregeolle, Safety Officer
Dr. Dan Whu, Medical Manager
Michelle Steele, Medical Specialist
Pedro Rodriguez, Hazmat Specialist
Rafael Pozo, Tech Search Specialist
Andrew Hook, Rescue Specialist
Donny Hall, Rescue Specialist
William Licea, Rescue Specialist
Brandy Paternoster, Rescue Specialist
Jeffery Oldfield, Rescue Specialist
Patricio Alvarado, Rescue Specialist


Our recon team left the Base of Operations (BoO) at the U.S. Embassy around 9:30 a.m. with orders to search Grid 3 for live victims who may remain trapped. The two vehicles, a bulletproof Suburban and a dirty white passenger van, were stuffed with 13 people, a dog and enough breaking & breaching equipment to demolish half a mountain side. The lead vehicle was driven by our non-English-speaking guide, while the van followed driven by one of our rescue specialists William Licea. We wound through the congested streets, relying on our driver and our medical specialist Michelle Steele’s broken French to deliver us to the correct location.

When we arrived at our assigned grid the team leader, J. Rodriguez, directed the driver to pull over. He had already briefed the team, so when we stopped everyone got out and began asking the curious crowd if anyone spoke English. A small man in a bright orange shirt identified himself as Felix and offered his assistance. Felix sent out “runners” looking for “leads” to find locations/stories of live victims who were still being dug out. While the group waited for those “runners” to return, two more locals indicated that they spoke English and would assist us as well. After 10 minutes, one of the runners returned with a man, telling us that this man’s brother was still trapped & was still communicating as recently as yesterday afternoon. The man eagerly agreed to guide the group to his trapped sibling’s location, saying that it was near-by, and pointing down the steep street. We all piled back into the vehicles and drove ¾ mile downhill through the crowded streets, stopping when the team leader directed our driver to the curb. Why he chose to stop at that spot was unclear even to the team leader himself, but all 13 of us got out again, scanning the crowd for Felix and the hopeful brother. Within a couple of minutes, they both appeared with the other two interpreters. As they started up the narrow rubble path our team leader, J. Rod, instructed William, who’d been driving, to stay at the vehicles with Dr. Whu, safety officer Gary Fregeolle, and the Haitian driver.

The brother turned from the street up a steep, narrow alley path, just wider than a man’s shoulders. The path quickly turned into a tiny trail through a vast pile of rubble that extended ½ mile in every direction. Closely behind the Haitian man followed several locals, J. Rod, Canine Handler Steve Driscoll, K9 Blaze, and the remaining eight team members. Several more locals brought up the rear of the somber procession. We followed single-file for approximately ¼ mile walking up hill until the man stopped at a pile of crumbled stones, indicating his brother was somewhere beneath. After a brief inspection of the site, Steve sent Blaze to search while the rest of us stayed back so we wouldn’t throw off Blaze’s scent. Blaze disappeared in and out of the rubble, following Steve’s every command. After several minutes, Steve informed J. Rod that Blaze had nothing. Based on the brother’s insistence of hearing his brother yesterday, J. Rod told our Tech Search Specialist Rafael Pozo to bring up the Delsar listening device for a secondary confirmation. It took nearly 10 minutes of explanation through Michelle, then Felix and then through the other translators to make the locals understand how important it was for them to remain motionless and silent while Rafael listened with the Delsar. Despite what we had all hoped was a strong lead, none of the preliminary searches panned out. The group solemnly headed back down the mountainside. We all knew that 6 days buried in the rubble left little hope of finding survivors. Steve was even worried about Blaze’s moral. After a week of endless searching and nothing positive, a search dog can actually get depressed. As the group turned to head back, Steve asked Michelle to help him make a strange request to one of the locals standing near-by. He asked the man to go hide somewhere in the rubble while he kept Blaze distracted. The man finally figured out what Michelle was trying to relay and disappeared. Steve then had Blaze search for the local. The entire group was further down the path, when but a few minutes later, we all heard Blaze barking excitedly and Steve’s praise at a job well done.

On the way up Andrew Hook, a Rescue Specialist, had been the last of our group of 10 so on the way back down he was in the lead. As he passed a man standing along the path, Andrew asked him if he knew of anyone still alive …to his surprise, the man said yes. Andrew notified J. Rod on the radio that he was going to check out a lead as he disappeared. The rest of us stopped where we were along the pathway and waited. Two locals led Andrew 25 yards away, out of sight, to a small 8” x 10” hole close to the ground on a random brick wall. One of the men leaned down to the hole and called out, “Carla!” Andrew heard no response and figured that Carla must be the name of a missing woman that had lived in the area. The man called out again, “Carla!” Andrew still heard nothing, yet noticed that suddenly both men jumped at the same time and became excited as if they had heard something. Andrew got down closer to the hole as the man called out a third time, “Carla!” He now heard 3 distinct knocks, then 3 knocks again. He notified J. Rod on the radio that he might have something, so J. Rod sent another Rescue Specialist, Patricio Alvarado, over to Andrew to help verify. When the man called out again, Pat thought he heard scratching, like small rocks being moved across a slab. Neither Andrew nor Pat could determine the exact direction or area that the sounds were coming from, but both men were sure that someone was alive below. Andrew notified J. Rod excitedly. The team leader quickly made his way over to both men while the rest of us continued to stage on the path. When he finally got over to them, he came across some wires that were hanging nearby. He called for Hazmat Tech Pedro Rodriguez to bring the hot-stick (an electricity-detecting device) to clear the path. J. Rod then called Rafael over with the Delsar and a search cam to look for a void space, but there was a roof slab that was fully intact, so Rafael had no access point to search for voids. The local,Felix, had followed Rafael over, so at this point J. Rod directed them both to stand back out of the way. He then called Steve over with Blaze. Steve sent Blaze to search the rubble pile. Blaze disappeared into the ruins. Less than a minute later, Blaze alerted, barking excitedly. Steve looked at J. Rod and said, “We have to get over there. He has something.”

During this same time, back on the path, where the rest of the team was waiting (approximately 25 yards back across the rubble …and out of sight), a woman had shown up. One of the English-speakers explained to us that this woman was the mother of a child who was still missing & believed to be in the area. This was the first time the team had seen her. She had heard a rescue team was in the area and had rushed over to beg for help. Michelle asked her when she had last heard her child. The mother said, “Today!” and imitated the whining cries of a baby …but the other locals around her (approximately 6 or 7) inconspicuously shook their heads NO as if to indicate that none of them believed her or had heard the child themselves. Michelle asked the woman what her child’s name was, how old she was and if she had any idea where her child may be trapped. Because of the steep hills and mountainside, buildings slid on top of others as the earthquake brought them down. The distraught mother could no longer recognize her home. So she had no idea within the rubble where her daughter could be. All she could tell us was that her daughters name was Carla, she was 2 years old and she could hear her cries as early as today. Michelle said to her in French, “If your daughter is alive, Blaze will find her and will bark, but six days is a long time.” The mother agreed and began softly singing a prayer; her arms raised to the sky as tears streamed down her face. When Blaze began barking in the distance, mom and several locals became excited and began asking, “What’s going on? What’s going on? Did they find something?” The team urged them all to stay quiet until we heard word from the team leader, not wanting to give them false hope.

10:29 a.m. Back across the rubble, Steve and J. Rod made their way toward the sound of Blaze’s bark. Neither knew any of the details being learned from the mother 25 yards away, but following the sound, they found Blaze barking at a solid brick wall. Blaze was focused on a spot 12” to 15” from the floor inside of a small 7’ x 10’ room that contained two small beds and a dresser. Viewed from the doorway, the right wall had partially collapsed into the room. From the outside, and directly behind the wall where Blaze was alerting, were the crumbled remains of two stories.

Steve came into the room, secured Blaze and called the team leader over. J. Rod brought Rafael with him who in-turn brought the search cam and the Delsar. The three began clearing out the room. Rafael and Steve took the door off of its hinges. J. Rod radioed back to the team, asking if we had learned any possible details of this victim. Michelle radioed back, saying only, “Carla …2-year-old girl.” By this time, the room was cleared out. Steve called out “Carla!” while standing by the wall where Blaze had alerted. He thought he heard a faint whining-cry. Rafael stated that there was no need for the Delsar if we already had audible confirmation, and began scoring the wall to make an access hole for the search cam. At this point, J. Rod heard the faint cry too, and it sounded very close. He stopped Rafael from breaching the wall and called for two more rescue specialists who were waiting with the mother, several locals and the rest of the team back on the narrow path.

Donny Hall and Brandy Paternoster made their way from the path, across the crumbled debris, snaking through narrow alley-ways, following the sound of voices to find the tiny room where Blaze, J. Rod, Steve, and Rafael were. When the two arrived at the shack, J. Rod pointed to a spot on the wall and said, “Do what you do.” Donny and Brandy decided to make a purchase point with the halligan, not knowing how far behind the wall the child may be, and not wanting to hurt her. When the sledgehammer struck the halligan for the first time, the two workers immediately heard Carla’s tiny whining-cry, exactly as they had heard her mother imitate back on the path, not 10 minutes earlier. Brandy called out her name, telling her we would have her out soon, knowing she didn’t understand a word, but hoping that hearing a friendly voice would be comforting in some way. The two quickly opened a small inspection hole in the 8” thick cinder-block wall about 15” from the floor, only to find rubble; large chunks of slab and concrete being held up by what appeared to be a rusty, crumpled, angle-iron bed frame. By breaking the bottom of the hole open lower, below the metal-supported debris, the two could see a void space. Donny shone his light into the inspection hole and exclaimed, “Oh my God, she’s right here!!” Not even 18” behind the opening, Carla was curled up on her right side, too weak to lift her head or move toward us, her sunken eyes wide and scared. Her yellow tank top and tiny blue jeans were covered in a thick layer of white concrete dust. Not one rock touched her small body. She was contained in a tiny cocoon with only 6” to 8” of clearance in any direction. It was if the hands of God had encased her, preventing the tons above her from crashing down. Donny & Brandy continued to make the hole bigger, taking care that no debris fell into Carla’s cocoon. When Donny could reach his arm in, he tried to protect her by covering her with a black t-shirt he found on the floor. Carla wouldn’t have it and kept pulling the shirt away as if to say, “I’m tired of being in the dark. No more!” Pat joined Donny and Brandy breaching the wall while J. Rod had the mother and father make their way over to the shanty so they could reassure Carla and witness the progress of their daughter’s rebirth.

When the hole was large enough, J. Rod stopped the 3 rock-breakers. In a quiet voice he said, “Go ahead. The hole is big enough now.” He leaned in closer and added, “the mom is right here. When you get her out, give her right to mom. Let her hold her.” Donny reached in to support Carla’s head while Brandy held her body as they gently pulled her through the jagged opening.

At 11:06 a.m. Carla Alexandre was placed into her mother’s arms as the surrounding crew blinked away tears. She had no visible injuries. While mom held her baby girl, the crew rinsed her face and mouth with bottled water, attempting to remove 6 days of dirt and grime. Her little mouth was so dry; the dust was caked and fell out in clumps as Donny wiped it away with his shirts sleeve. Carla greedily tried to swallow the water and we had to prevent her from doing so until most of the dirt was cleared away. When her tiny face had been wiped and she had guzzled a couple of ounces, the group rounded up all of their hand tools. Donny gently took Carla back as Rafael helped mom back over the rough terrain, climbing through a window opening to get into the next shack over. Going was slow, and as the team crept back toward the path, they had to pass Carla and the tools from person to person just to make progress. J. Rod had been on the radio the entire time, sending updates back to the Base. He now requested that an ambulance be sent to our location and relayed our GPS coordinates.

While that group inched their way back, the rest of the team was busy setting up a medical treatment area on the path. The three who had waited at the vehicles brought up the medical bags, following the same path ¼ mile up the mountainside.

Gary Fregeolle, the safety officer, and our last rescue specialist, Jeffery Oldfield, found a 3’x 5’ table-top. They set it up on the path in the shade, supporting it with rocks and rubble to make it level. William Licea found a wooden ironing board right beside the trail, recognizing immediately that it would make a perfect miniature backboard. Dr. Whu told those on the path to prepare to receive a critical patient, given the number of days she had been trapped in the rubble, and knowing the likelihood of trauma and dehydration. When Donny finally emerged onto the trail carrying Carla, William heard one of the locals say in English, “Today is truly a miracle. Thank-you Lord Jesus.”
Donny gingerly placed Carla onto the ironing board made just for her and collapsed onto the ground nearby, exhausted. Dr. Whu was astounded at what he saw. Carla was awake and alert, her sunken eyes staring at the organized chaos around her. She was fully intact, and didn’t have one scratch on her hot brown skin. While Dr. Whu assessed further, Michelle began washing out Carla’s eyes with saline. After cleaning her gaunt face and checking her pupils, she cleaned her thin arm, searching for a vein. After finding one and establishing an IV, Pedro held the bag high over-head, allowing the life-giving fluid to rehydrate her tiny body. Mom was standing nearby, watching and grinning through her tears. Someone asked her through an interpreter how old Carla was. The interpreter relayed, “Two, exactly two.” Pedro overheard and asked, “Today is her birthday?” in a surprised voice. The interpreter asked again and then relayed, “No, January 9th, Carla turned 2 on January 9th.”

Dr. Whu finished his assessment as Michelle infused Dextrose 25% into the IV line. J. Rod again requested an ambulance, then consulted with Dr. Whu and decided that it would probably be quicker to take her to a hospital ourselves. He then requested the coordinates of the nearest hospital. When the Base radioed the coordinates back, William entered them into his GPS. Dr. Whu stated, to no one in particular, that Carla’s condition was excellent, in spite of her obvious dehydration. He added that he was surprised to see that she was still producing saliva after 6 days with no fluid intake. Jeffery got Carla taped to that perfect ironing-board-backboard and the team prepared to creep back down the mountain. Gary led the way, asking locals to help clear rocks from the path when possible. Pedro supported/guided Brandy as they backed down the steep grade holding the head of Carla’s board with one arm and shielding her face from the glaring sun with the other. Pat carefully followed, supporting Carla’s feet and attempting to keep the board level. When the whole group finally emerged on to the street, the gathered crowd of 20 or 30 began cheering and clapping, instantly clearing a path toward the waiting van. Dr. Whu and Michelle jumped into the back of the van with Carla. Carla’s parents got in the front while William got behind the wheel, his GPS in-hand. As he drove off, Carla’s mom began to sing. She sang as she watched Michelle moisten a 4×4 with water and put it to Carla’s mouth. She sang as Carla sucked the 4×4 dry and gave it back to Michelle, silently asking for more. Mom sang as Carla reached for the bottle, no longer satisfied with the drops she was getting. Mom sang when Michelle asked Carla where her mother was and the little girl looked toward the front seat where mom was sitting. Mom sang the entire ride, only stopping when the van pulled up in front of the make-shift hospital.

There were no markings on the building, so Dr. Whu jumped out and asked, “Is this a hospital?” No one answered him and it took several more times before someone finally said yes. The group unloaded and took Carla inside. After being directed to the pediatric tent, Dr. Whu began to brief the receiving doctor, telling him we had just pulled Carla from beneath a rubble-pile. The doctor asked, “Really?” as if in disbelief. It took several minutes for Dr. Whu to convince him that she had been trapped for 6 days without food or water. Carla’s condition was so good that Dr. Whu and Michelle commented as they left that Carla would probably be discharged later that day. She was surrounded by far more critical children and the hospital would need room for more.

Back in grid 3, J. Rod’s recon team gathered on the sidewalk. The barrage of thanks and hugs and handshakes was overwhelming and our emotions were raw. After a few minutes, the crowd began to thin out and the team retreated to a shady spot to regroup. A small contingent of locals stayed with us, including Felix and the interpreters, who immediately sent out “runners” again, excitedly telling everyone who passed that we had just saved a baby girl. The whole team smiled at each other, repeating the story over and over, reliving every second, and knowing that we had been a part of something that would be with us forever. It wasn’t too long before one of the “runners” returned with a lead. J. Rod looked at each of us, ensuring we were rested and hydrated. Still elated, we picked up our halligan and sledgehammers and headed briskly back up into the rubble.

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