Haiti Earthquake: One Decade Later

On January 12, 2010, a magnitude 7.0 earthquake devastated Haiti, killing 316,000 people and affecting more than three million people — leaving half of them homeless. On the ten-year anniversary of the disaster, two members of USAID’s Disaster Assistance Response Team reflect back on their rescue efforts and the resilience of the Haitian people.

The USAID Disaster Assistance Response Team’s urban search and rescue members made history by pulling 47 people out of the rubble, with 12 of those rescues made all in one day. Photo credit: Paul J. Richards / AFP

The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) deployed its elite Disaster Assistance Response Team (DART) immediately after the earthquake struck south of Haiti’s capital Port-au-Price. The DART’s mission was clear: Provide lifesaving humanitarian aid and search for survivors. But meeting this mission would not be easy.

“Total devastation and total loss of infrastructure for blocks. Buildings were pancaked, wires were down. And finding survivors were like finding a needle in many haystacks.”

- Terry DeJournett, USAID DART Urban Search and Rescue Member

At the height of the response, the DART comprised 545 people, including 511 urban search and rescue (USAR) members and 34 disaster experts with USAID’s Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance. It was the largest disaster team that USAID had ever deployed, and the DART broke records in other ways.

Its search and rescue members joined a historic international rescue effort that saved 134 people — the largest number of known rescues in an international disaster response. Of that, USAID’s DART was responsible for pulling 47 people out of the rubble. Twelve of those rescues were made all in one day — January 17, 2010 — five days after the earthquake struck, setting a record for an international search and rescue effort.

Joseph Knerr of Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department and Terry DeJournett with Los Angeles County Fire Department both led their respective teams’ search and rescue operations in Haiti. They shared with us two of their most vivid memories, in their own words.

The Miracle at the Bank: January 17, 2010

Terry DeJournett of the Los Angeles County Fire Department

On the morning of January 17th, we had been working at a debris pile that we tore apart, but we found nothing there. Then someone comes to us and says, “Hey, there’s a lady down at the bank three blocks away.”

We got to the place where the bank had stood, which was now a pile of rubble. The lady, a bank employee, was trapped under four stories worth of debris. Her name was Jinette Sainfort, a bank employee. She was in the bank’s parking structure when the earthquake hit. Now she was entombed. Her husband — who had been at the bank — had been calling out her name and heard her answer. Someone had managed to open up a little two-inch hole.

As the first USAR team on site, we had to make a decision. The woman was trapped under a concrete slab and all that debris. Her hands were pinned on a metal sign. She was unable to move. Do we approach the rescue from the top down and remove all the debris on top of her? That could take days. Or do we approach her from the side?

Jinette Sainfort is pulled from the rubble five days after she was buried alive.
She came out singing and thanking members of the USAID DART for rescuing her. Photos credit: USAID/OFDA

We decided on the sideways operation, digging a tunnel over her. This allowed us to trench away from her, and once we got to her level, we were able to slowly remove the debris on top of her and open up the void. We eventually got the hole big enough to where someone could crawl in and help pull her out.

At the same time, all around us, there was a crowd of some 50 people and news reporters gathering. When we pulled her out, she was singing a song in French about God and she was thanking us for the rescue. There’s video of this. The crowd is chanting, “USA! USA!” Cameras were rolling. The crowd was cheering. It was so surreal.

Five days after an earthquake, you don’t see too many survivors. But this rescue was a miracle. Jinette ended up losing a couple of digits on her hand, but we saved her life. This disaster and this uplifting rescue is something you don’t forget.

VIDEO: Jinette Sainfort praises her rescuers as members of the USAID DART pull her out from under the bank where she was trapped for five days. Video courtesy: Terry DeJournett, LA County Fire Department

The 18-Hour Rescue

Joseph Knerr of Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department

On every mission you go on, you hope you’ll be able to save a life. Our most successful mission prior to Haiti was in Turkey, where we rescued four people. So, it was incredible in Haiti to have the opportunity to save so many lives.

One of the rescues that stands out most to me is our first one. It took 18 hours, and for a large part of it, it was the same crew working the whole time. We had to tunnel underneath a destroyed building and then up through several floors to reach the person. We’re trained to tunnel — to go through a wall or a bed or a refrigerator. But typically, you wouldn’t tunnel under a building. There would be other options, but in this instance, there just wasn’t.

Another rescue that sticks with me is the American that we pulled out of the Hotel Montana, Dan Woolley. He was trapped in an elevator shaft for 65 hours before we pulled him out of the rubble. Months later, he came by one of our fire stations and met with some of the guys who helped get him out. Normally, we don’t get the full story, which is fine. We aren’t looking for that. But it was nice to know a bit more about the person and how he was doing afterward.

After surviving the Haiti earthquake, Dan Woolley wrote “Unshaken” about his experience. This excerpt is from his description of when the USAID search and rescue team first reached him.

Ten years later, what also stands out to me is the strength of the Haitian people. We pulled one woman out and as soon as the medic looked her over and gave her some fluids, she basically dusted herself off and walked away. It speaks to the resilience of the people.

I’ll always remember how everyone came together and worked together for a common purpose. What we did in Haiti was what we signed up to do. It’s the pinnacle of my USAR career to have been part of this response.

Now retired and living in Hawaii, Terry DeJournett remains active in the first responder community. He has taught classes on the Incident Command System and remains connected to the LA County Fire Department and members of the USAR team. His son is a firefighter working with the LA County Fire Department’s Urban Search and Rescue Team.

While no longer with Fairfax County’s urban search and rescue team, Joe Knerr remains an active member of the fire department. He is currently the Operations Assistant Chief, overseeing all operational issues — including the USAR team, firefighting, EMS, technical rescue, HAZMAT, and emergency planning. His wife also works for the Fairfax County Fire Department in the EMS branch.

“We got very little sleep for 17 days. But the strength of the team and the unity was amazing, and the opportunity to provide assistance to Haiti and the people was the biggest takeaway. They were so appreciative for all that we did,” said Terry DeJournett of LA County Fire Department. Photo credit: USAID/OFDA

Read more about USAID’s response to the Haiti earthquake and USAID’s current humanitarian efforts in Haiti.

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Read the blog in French here and Haitian Creole here.

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