Buried for two days beneath the rubble in Haiti

Earthquake survivor, Faradhia, stands at the former site of the Caribbean Market where she was once buried for 50 hours -- the rubble now cleared away and the foundation visible behind her. A powerful experience, it was the first time she had returned to the site since she was rescued. (Mary Kate MacIsaac/WV)

Faradhia Moise walked into the Caribbean Market to pick up dinner for herself and her parents – they were going to have pizza that night – when the floor started to shake. “There was a really loud noise, and I thought the building was about to collapse,” she said, recalling that fateful day last January.  She turned, ran, and then it was dark.

“I could not really move,” she said.  “I was stuck there.” Broken bottles of ketchup, mustard, and hot sauce surrounded her, and screams filled the air.  It would be another 50 hours before she would see the light of day again.

* * *

I first met Faradhia a few days after returning to Haiti in early January 2011.  She had recently started working with World Vision’s advocacy team there, helping children have a voice in their communities and teaching others about the value of child participation in society.  Her bright smile, easy laugh, and cheerful personality belie the challenges she’s seen over the past year.

“When my friends see me, they see a smile on my face. But when I find myself alone, I cry, but I am a fighter," she says.

I could be telling you a very different story today.  Faradhia was one of just a few hundred people who were rescued from the rubble of Haiti’s earthquake last January; more than 230,000 were killed.  She shouldn’t have survived, buried alive inside the concrete walls of a market.  In fact, another woman, an acquaintance from Port-au-Prince, entered the market at the same time as Faradhia and walked down the same aisle toward the pizzas, but she never left. One year later, her husband and family haven’t even been able to find her body.

Collapsed buildings just two days after the initial earthquake on January 12, 2010. (James Addis/WV)

“I had survivor’s guilt,” acknowledged Faradhia.  “I was afraid to leave my house because I thought people would be angry with me because I survived [and their loved ones did not].” She survived, but those two-and-a-half days are etched deeply in her memory. Even one year later, she has flashbacks of her experience and says it’s hard to sleep at night.  She says she can still hear people’s voices calling, calling, calling, until one minute, they stop calling, and she is left alone.  This is her story.

* * *

Everywhere around her, it was dark. Her legs were pinned by a shelf, and she could not move one of her hands.  Despite being trapped in a grocery store, she could not move to get any food.  She knew she would need to eat soon because she was a diabetic without her insulin.  So she picked up the nearest thing she could reach with her free hand: a can of Campbell’s Soup.

“I took one sip, but it was so salty, I couldn’t finish it,” she recalled.  Even without food, water was critical.  But where would she be able to find water? She could barely see in front of her face.  She knew what she had to do. “I poured out the soup, urinated in the can, and drank it,” she said.  “I had no water.” But after awhile, she started to feel sick to her stomach, and her own urine became too difficult to drink, so she stopped.  Looking back, Faradhia thinks that difficult decision, the decision to drink her own urine, may have saved her life. “Sometimes, I wonder if I could have survived if I didn’t drink it,” said Faradhia.

Over the course of the next few days, Faradhia and another woman beside her started talking, providing comfort and encouragement to each other.  They learned each other’s names and phone numbers, and made a promise that whoever got rescued first would tell the rescuers that her friend was still inside.  But as time went on, and the voices around them became quieter, Faradhia and her friend started to wonder if they would actually make it out alive.

“They took her out about nine or ten hours before me,” remembered Faradhia.  “When she left, it was silent.  I lost faith, and I said to myself, I will not make it.  That’s the only time I really started to cry.”

But she did make it.  Ten hours later, around 7 p.m., Faradhia heard a voice. “They were calling ‘Nadhia, Nadhia,’” she said.  “I said to myself, that’s not my name, but I’m just going to respond. And that’s when I knew I was saved.”

Survivors seeking medical care just two days after the January 12, 2010 quake. (James Addis/WV)

After being in the dark for 50 hours, her eyes were so sensitive to the light from the rescue team that it was difficult to open them.  But she remembers the first person she saw was a man from ICE-SAR, the Icelandic search-and-rescue team that had traveled nearly 33 hours from Iceland to help with the rescue efforts in Port-au-Prince.

As she was pulled out of the rubble, a CNN reporter was one of the first people to speak with her.   “When they [the rescuers] came,” she told CNN’s Gary Tuchman, “I had faith that I would be rescued…and I am thanking God for keeping me alive.”

Because she had been buried for so long, Faradhia had no idea what had happened to her country. At first, she just thought the building had collapsed; she had no idea that Port-au-Prince had been nearly destroyed. Once she was rescued and returned to her family, she said it was three or four days before she began to really understand the extent of the catastrophe in Haiti.

* * *

That day in early January when I first met Faradhia, it had been nearly one year since Faradhia had been trapped inside the Caribbean Market, and she told me there was still something she felt she had to do.  She wanted to meet the men who rescued her and thank them for saving her life. “Every day, I woke up and told myself, my God, I wasn’t able to thank them.

After a quick phone call and a few e-mails to CNN, we found the reporter who first interviewed her and the Icelandic team who saved her. Within a few days, Faradhia, Gary Tuchman, his producer, cameraman, and I were all sitting on a couch in her parents’ home, watching as Faradhia spoke, for the first time, on Skype video chat, to the team of rescuers.

“It’s more than a job. It really takes a heart to risk your life. To me, you are more than heroes,” she said to the team, her voice filled with joy as she looked at the computer screen filled with the faces of nearly 35 volunteer rescuers from Iceland smiling back at her. She went on to tell them that her parents always taught her that the three most important phrases were “good morning,” “thank you,” and “please,” and she had never been able to thank them for saving her that day.

The meeting ended on a light note when Faradhia told the group, “Before being trapped, I had a long list of places to visit. Since then, I’ve added Iceland to the list, and someday, I’d like to visit!”

After exchanging another round of thank-yous to each other, Faradhia turned to us with a big smile on her face. “I feel so relieved,” she said.  “Just three days before the one-year…”  Her voice trailed off, but her face said it all.  Finally, after being able to say “thank you” to the men who saved her life, Faradhia could move on.

This post was written by Laura Blank, International News Manager with the World Vision U.S. News Bureau, in Haiti, one year after the earthquake.

Read related post: Nothing sweeter -- one year, one week after the Haiti quake.

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