A window to Haiti: 'Bodies were everywhere--on sidewalks and streets and buried in rubble and smashed inside cars'
I arrived as dusk was falling a day or two after the quake struck, in a small convoy of journalists driving in from the Dominican Republic. People were saying that Haiti looked like a war zone, but I found that to be an understatement; Port-au-Prince is far more ravaged than Baghdad or Kabul or Sarajevo ever were, even in their worst days. (Dresden or Stalingrad during World War II are probably closer to the mark.) We made our way to a hotel compound that was only lightly damaged but had no services--there was little or no food, power, or shelter. I ate a lot of the crackers and peanut butter I'd brought with me, charged my batteries using the cigarette lighter in the truck we rented, and at night reclined the seat and slept in it as well. Others, fearing to sleep in the hotel due to the danger of aftershocks, dragged mattresses onto the front lawn and slept in the open. In the mornings some of us would rinse off using dubious standing water from the hotel swimming pool.
Those first few days, there was no escaping death. It literally surrounded you, as bodies were everywhere--on sidewalks and streets and buried in rubble and smashed inside cars. Where you couldn't see death, you could smell its ominous, all-too-familiar stench. The main city morgue was quickly overwhelmed, and the scenes I saw there are beyond nightmares: thousands of dead bodies, overfilling the building and spread out over a huge parking lot, sometimes stacked two or three high. People would come to hastily search the piles for relatives before the bodies were cleared out by backhoe to make room for more. Some of the horrid things I saw at the morgue, and at mass graves I visited outside of the capital, I don't think I'll ever tell anyone.
I made my way also to the central Port-au-Prince business district, a historic area of French colonial storefronts that had been the shopping and cultural heart of the city. Once it was been the pride of Port-au-Prince; now it looked like movie set for a film about the end of the world. Block after endless block was smashed into rubble, and looters (many probably escaped from the central prison nearby, which emptied out in the chaos) were frenetically crawling over the twisted concrete piles like swarms of ants, looking for anything salvageable. The human toll is of course enormous in Haiti but the historic and architectural repercussions are catastrophic as well: downtown and elsewhere in Port-au-Prince, scores of historic and important 18th and 19th century buildings that have weathered all the previous storms and turmoil came tumbling down all at once. The National Palace and the National Cathedral, Haiti's main seats of government and religion respectively--both looked they'd been hit in bombing runs.
The psychological effect of the massive death toll coupled with the physical destruction of their capital is going to be immense, of course. Untold thousands not only died, they completely disappeared; routinely leaving for work or school the morning of January 12 only to end up in an unmarked mass grave in the countryside a day or two later. Burial rites were denied to the dead and closure to the living. So many people were killed that Haitians even now aren't quite sure who made it and who didn't: my driver Marco has been zipping me around town, and not infrequently he'll see someone he knows and with a quick apology stop the truck and give them a long embrace. ("I am so happy he is not dead," he usually says afterward, as we continue on.) A number of Haiti's brightest young minds have been extingusied, too, since most of the universities in Port-au-Prince collapsed, likely killing thousands of college students alone.
Clearly this earthquake going to go down as one of the worst natural disasters in history. The numbers are still in flux here, but it's starting to look like the quake killed roughly the name number of people as the massive 2004 Asian tsunami, some 200,000 people. The tsunami was bad enough; but for one tiny country to absorb the same death toll that fourteen mostly larger ones did during the tsunami is mind-boggling. And unlike the tsunami countries or some of the massive Chinese or Indian earthquakes of history, Haiti has essentially lost it's capital. It's a been a long time since the capital of a nation has been hit with an event of this magnitude.
For my part, the many horrible things I've witnessed here are balanced somewhat by the scenes I also saw of immense charity and bravery. These memories are swimming in my mind, surfacing in quick flashes: Haitian students piled on the pancaked heap of one of the collapsed colleges, stone-by-stone removing debris in a steady effort to reach friends trapped underneath; burly US troops carrying heavy cases of water two at a time on their shoulders and loading them into a steady stream of helicopters; young Haitian men serenely escorting old Haitian grandmothers to the front of food lines, while others wait politely; doctors and nurses from all over Earth converging at the central hospitall complex in Port-au-Prince, tirelessly saving countless lives working out of tents and in the open air.
At this hospital, doctors earmarked the most serious cases for helicopter airlift to a premier Navy medical ship floating offshore; American paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne were tasked with transporting these patients from the hospital to an improvised helicopter landing pad on the grounds of the destroyed National Palace. One was a boy named Paul with a grievously broken leg who winced in pain whenever he was moved; another was a brave girl named Narlee, who had a wall fall on her in the quake, leaving her face horribly swollen and her head wrapped in thick bandages that looked like an old-time leather football helmet. The young men of the 82nd loaded the children into a rugged Army ambulance and drove them to the Palace, and placed the gurneys side-by-side on the unmowed glass. As the helicopter arrived and started to land it whipped up the air, and the soldiers dove down to shield Paul and Narlee from the wind and flying debris--small-town American boys with pimples and crew cuts cradling Haitian children they didn't know, and would never see again. Soon the children were loaded onto the helicopter and it quickly rose again, roaring away into the hot blue Haitian sky.