The church was newly built, and the group of American missionaries and Haitians were standing in it and thanking God through prayer. Suddenly, a deafening roar filled the church, as if Niagara Falls had been transplanted to the Haitian mountains.
Simultaneously, a strong wind swept through the church. Then the ground literally started to roll.
For 30 seconds the earth moved beneath Roger Hall’s feet, causing him to stagger from side to side. The group finally managed to stumble out of the church. Then everything stopped.
Little did Hall and his friends know, but Haiti had just suffered the most devastating earthquake in the country’s history.
“When I was a kid, I used to have the game where you would plug the football players into the table and then the whole thing would start to vibrate. That’s what it was like, you couldn’t stay stable,” Hall recounted Saturday afternoon.
Not an hour before, the group of missionaries had finished installing the church’s wooden rafters and laying its tin roof. Miraculously the structure still stood with not a single crack.
“We and the Haitians immediately started praying and thanking God,” Hall said. “We had no idea that the entire island had been affected.”
Hall was the only Newton County resident among a group of 15 missionaries from Sandy Creek Baptist Church in Madison who traveled to Haiti on Jan. 9. The church has been sending mission trips to the Caribbean country for more than 20 years, and last week’s trip was designed to finish the construction of Grand Place Baptist Church.
Grand Place is located two hours east of the Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince, in the surrounding mountains. It wasn’t until Hall and the others started heading downhill later Tuesday night that they began to see the destruction caused by the 7.0 magnitude earthquake.
“There was just all of this rock and wreckage from the landslides. We managed to pick our way through that. Up in the mountains it’s not as heavily populated like it is in the city,” he said. “There was one Pentecostal church, right below the church we had built, that had totally collapsed. There was nothing.”
As night fell, the group headed back toward the villa where they were staying, in a town outside of Port-au-Prince. Through the darkness they saw collapsed buildings and shattered walls.
“The Haitians were walking almost like they were sleepwalking, but I don’t know if even knew where they were going. They were going in opposite directions, up and down the streets,” he said. “But when we made it back to the villa, we still had no idea of total devastation going on.”
The villa had a backup generator and had not been damaged. The group awoke Wednesday morning to see U.S. military planes circling the city, and Hall assumed they were doing survey damage. Communications were still down, so there was no new information. That afternoon, the villa owner took Hall and a few others on a tour around the city to survey the situation — the carnage finally became real.
“By Wednesday afternoon there were dead bodies stacked along the sidewalks. They had already begun to swell, and a stench already filled the air, less than 24 hours later. It was shocking and devastating to say the least,” Hall said. “None of the Haitians went into the buildings, everybody was trying to find a place to be safe. Hundreds of thousand were out by the president’s palace, which was collapsed.
“While we were there another tremor hit and the Haitians started screaming and hollering. To see those thousands of people move like a wave as the tremor shook them, it’s indescribable. Once we made it back to the villa, we knew we had to get out.”
However, the communications were still down, and the group wanted to let their families know they were OK. It wasn’t until Wednesday night that they were able to find a text phone and send a single reassuring message to their families.
The situation outside the villa began to become more desperate. Earlier in the day most Haitians had actually moved into Port-au-Prince, the epicenter of the devastation, but then a rumor began to spread that the city was going to be flooded and fall into the ocean. As the throngs evacuated the city, the villa owner warned the group that if some of the Haitians attempted to break into the villa, the group might have to fight for their lives.
The hours ticked by Wednesday night and the group slept little. Hall hadn’t slept the night before and wouldn’t sleep at all for the next 96 hours. But the night passed by and no damage was done. The owner was finally able to acquire some vehicles on Thursday and the group packed up and headed for the American embassy.
Hall described the path to the embassy as a madhouse. The shock and confusion had warn off for some Haitians who had now resorted to looting stores for clothing, and particularly, food.
After entering the embassy without trouble, the group was safe, but now packed into a complex with a thousand other Americans and Haitian-Americans all seeking to leave the country. The complex had no food or water, but a military plane came in that night and brought rations.
That plane was then packed with people Thursday night, but there wasn’t enough room for all 15 of the missionaries. None of them boarded the plane because they had pledged to stay together.
All of the chairs in the embassy were taken, so many in the group ended up sleeping on the ground surrounding the building. Hall once again kept night watch, waiting for the next plane’s arrival. The call for passengers came at 1:30 a.m. Friday.
The group and dozens of other Americans were packed into SUVs. They had to leave their luggage behind.
At the Toussaint L’ouverture International Airport, three of the Sandy Creek Baptist group made it on to a plane, but it filled before the rest could make it aboard. Hall and 11 others were left to ride back to the embassy to wait for another chance — Hall made sure they didn’t miss it.
Recollections about what they had seen and prayer helped to pass the time. The sun rose, and the group was told a plane should be arriving at 8 a.m. Hall and the others were eventually herded out the door at 10 a.m. The standard U.S. Military cargo plane can hold 60 passengers. There were about 80 Americans in Friday morning’s convoy of SUVs.
This time the plane was loaded with children and their families first. Then the elderly. The plane was filling fast, and Hall realized they might not make it. He went up to the U.S. agent who was writing the names of those boarding.
“I said that was the last family with a child, and I have four U.S. veterans in my group. I said we have one 82-year-old man, and we need to get on this plane. She told me to bring me the 82-year-old man. I said we all go together … and we were able to get on plane.”
The remaining 12 members arrived in Homestead, Fla. Friday afternoon, excited and relieved to be back on American soil. Just when they thought they were out of trouble, the exit door opened while the plane was still landing, and everybody was rushed out of the plane. One of the engines had caught fire.
The fire was put out and everyone was OK. The group was put on a bus to Miami International Airport, where two private planes then took them home to Madison. The planes were courtesy of Southern Pan Services, a company out of Lithonia. One of the group member’s sons works for the company.
“The first thing I did when I got off the plane was look for my wife. When she came up I don’t … words couldn’t express what it was like to see her face and hug her,” he said.
The first thing he did when he got home was to take a hot shower. The second was to sleep in his own bed.
“We don’t always realize how blessed we are to live in this country,” he said. “The people of Haiti have such great need. They had a great need before the quake happened, first of all, but even more now. If we can do our part, and allow God to use us, he will make us a blessing to a people who need us desperately.”
For other local stories about Haiti check Wednesday’s edition of The Covington News.