Note: I originally wrote this about a month after the earthquake. I never published it, despite my promises to everyone. I just couldn't reread this without bursting into tears. I apologize for the grammar or spelling errors. Thank you for understanding.
Some things I can’t forget. Like all the people coming towards me out of the white mist, pale faces, eyes wide and empty, screaming and crying their fear and despair. At least, I think they were screaming, I couldn’t hear them. The world had gone mute. Or, if I could, indeed, physically hear their voices, my brain was unable to process the stimuli.
I was on my way home, hitching a ride, as I usually did, with my coworker N. Since her niece worked at the Ministry of Commerce, a few blocks from my house, she drops me off almost every day.
We took the predictable route: up from downtown via rue Pavée. There was a lot of traffic that day. I told N. that it must have been due to the launch of another long series of protests the Association of Layed Off Workers had inaugurated that day on the Champ de Mars. We had left work late enough that day for this unusually large number of cars to be noted.
We turned up in front of the Presidential Palace, right at the National Museum. N. is a creature of habit so she would have turned left on Ave Magny except there were students burning tires at the next corner. We tried the next street over, same situation
N asked me where to turn so I suggested going past the old US Consulate to circle back towards the Champ de Mars towards the Ministry of Commerce. This is were it happened.
I didn’t know it was an earthquake. I just know that chaos erupted, people were running around, cars and trucks left their lanes. And we weren’t going forward anymore. This big bus was coming towards us and I got scared. I asked N why we weren’t moving. She said it wasn’t her, the car was shaking. I stupidly thought that her transmission was shot. Of course, this didn’t explain why we were shaking like a maraca.
N told me to get out of the car, which I did. I could see smoke coming from the roundabout. I ran towards the X-ray clinic and squatted in front of an old Datsun. Red, I think it was. I laugh now at my strong conviction that this was some consequence of the riot. I remember thinking “why doesn’t all this tear gas burn my eyes or throat?”and then I said aloud “Funny, I don’t hear gun shots”.
This was when the man standing next to me said “Miss, this is an earthquake”. All of a sudden, things made sense. I saw his arm was bloody. “the wall fell on the candy vendor next to me” he said. I looked around, looking for N. It was then that I noticed how diverse the crowd was: young, old, all with wild or dazed faces.
We got back into the car, N and I, and turned around to drive up Rue St Honoré. The entire wall of the Enthnology faculty was lying on the street. We drove up the block to rue Capois but a traffic jam had already formed. N told me we had to go get her niece at the Ministry. The usually calm and collected N was looking a bit frantic while I felt dazed and detached. This young man came up and told us to stay calm, he would accompany us. I turned around and the Champ de Mars was white. People, like Gede worshippers, their faces and arms powdered with what would turn out to be dust
from the Presidential Palace and the surrounding Ministries. Some were stained red from their bleeding wounds.
I remember seeing five Muslim UN soldiers, three kneeling, two standing calling to Allah to protect
We circled around the lower corner fo the square. When the Ministries came into view, I had to grab on to N or she would have gone running towards the site. The building was gone! In fact, I kept looking for buildings that were not there. Like the Palace hotel .i was in such shock that I couldn’t understand what my eyes were seeing.
N. ‘s niece was alive but she had received a violent shock to the head from falling debris. She would go into shock later, in the car. I thought she was going to die. We must have spent an hour trying to care for her wit the help of a young med student and his sister. I don’t even remember their names now but I am grateful.
I’ve never felt so helpless in my life. I don’t know CPR and don’t know how to drive. At one point, this man got out of the small SUV in front of us and told us he needed to get his brother to the hospital but didn’t know how to drive. I tried asking people going by for help but was ignored.
I was dropped off at home around 6h15 pm by my estimate. The padlock was still on the smaller outside gate so I know my mother wasn’t home. Night had fallen and in the half light of dusk I could tell the house was destroyed though the façade was standing. I looked through the car gate and could see rubble in the driveway, the French doors of the living room. I called my dogs and my cat but they didn’t come. I tried not to think about that too much.
I decided to walk up the nine blocks to my mother’s work. At the neighbor’s house at the opposite end of our street, this SUV stopped. The driver got out, a man about my age with a red shirt. I remember well because the burst of color was a shock to my eyes after all the white and black fo the square. I remember also because of what happened next. He joined the rest of his family in the yard, took one look at the fallen house and ran away. They called his name, he looked back, eyes wide, but kept running. I thought he would fall or get hit by a car. I walked on, all the while trying to get my parents and aunt on the phone without success. I stumbled over the bricks of the Sacré Coeur church; the steeple was in the middle of the street.
The street was full of crying people, walking up or down, cars trying to drive around the wreckage, other vehicles abandoned.
I took a detour towards the old family home to check on my Great-Uncle. For some reason, my mother answered finally while I was standing across from the house, looking at Uncle’s slight frame sitting, as always, on his galerie. A typical scene if not for the fact that the upper story had collapsed on one side. I’ve never cried so hard in my life. The minute I heard my mother’s voice on the phone, this wail bent me in half. I almost couldn’t speak, I couldn’t even stop this animalistic sound. She told me she was safe, in a neighborhood not far, with other employees.
How does one forget such overwhelming fear and sadness? None of us slept that night. I kept either pacing back and forth, or sitting, blankly staring at the walls, and the electric cables or the gate. I had joined my old neighbors by then. We spent the night in the street, sitting on chairs and benches. While time seemed to drag on for me and dawn seemed to take forever to come, others in the group felt it rushed by. I couldn’t even close my eyes, too afraid that a big tremor would bring the houses down. The ground never seemed to stop moving that first night. Every couple of hours, the gate would knock against the wall. One could hear the screams of fear coming up from the Champ de Mars, like a wave, with every aftershock.
Today still, some images will rise up inside of me, unexpectedly. Like this woman in Ti Four, a boy and a girl firmly in each hand, saying over and over again “I can’t leave him down there. I have to go get him from school. He’s my son, I need to get him” while walking towards the city center.
Like the corpse of this street vendor in front of Five Stars Market, one arm embracing the electric pole on the side walk, seeming asleep but unequivocally dead.
Like the muffled voice of this woman, the day after, calling out from beneath Saint Louis Roi de France church. And the reassurances that she would be saved by the neighbors frantically pulling away the bricks. They did save her. She did make it out.
At least, I hope so.