A Prayer for Bill

A Prayer for Bill

The story below was authored by Miles Wright, one of the founders of Hearts with Haiti and a long time friend of the St. Joseph Family. Miles was instrumental in rescuing Bill Nathan after the earthquake; what follows is his story of that rescue.

It was pitch black and we’re circling Port au Prince in a small twin-engine plane, straining to see the large C-130 and 777 cargo planes locked in long holding patterns around us. Pilots and ground crew alike were tense and testy – some planes reporting up to 20 hours in the air. A voice comes on the radio that we do not have military clearance to land – our hearts sank and we started calculating our remaining fuel.

Just 36 hours earlier, I decided to find a way to get emergency supplies to Haiti, specifically the homes of the St. Joseph Family. St. Joseph’s consists of three Haitian homes that shelter over 100 children from homelessness and child slavery. My ten years of relationship with these amazing sanctuaries transformed ordinary board service into something much more rare and precious – family.

Family members in the U.S. did not know the earthquake’s damage to Port au Prince and could only rely on very short cell phone calls we managed to receive. Tremors still shook the city, we were told.

Food and water were already in short supply and robberies were starting. The calculation, however, was simple – when your family needs you, you show up.

In those 36 hours, an incredible outpouring of love and concern filled the internet with emails and the airwaves with cell calls. Ironically, I had just complained to a friend about quietness in my life. Now I was managing a flood of daily emails and at least a hundred phone calls related to Hearts With Haiti, a 501(c)3 organization formed in 2001 to support St. Josephs. It seemed just our little bits of information were virtual diamonds, sought after by CNN, NPR, ABC, and a host of other news organizations across the country. Our small organization was suddenly caught in the spotlight of a media feeding frenzy.

Sadly, many of the calls and emails were from people seeking loved ones in Haiti. “Can you get a message to someone in Carrefour?” we were asked. “Have you heard anything about the mission team from Maryland?” “Can you find my daughter?” I heard bravery and fear in all these voices.

How do you pack for a disaster? One tee shirt, a passport and a toothbrush, I decided. At least I won’t be lugging Costco containers of Huggies through the Miami airport – a rare happy thought.

The harder question was the supply list. Three homes and over one hundred children affected – what to take? Because of the small plane’s weight limit, it had to be a short list. The decision was to establish reliable communication with SAT phones, clean water with state-of-the-art mobile filtration systems, and solar powered portable generators to keep phones charged. And lots of cash. I consciously chose not to take at least twenty items, each decision reached with agonizing practicality.

The main reason for the rushed trip, however, was to provide medical care for two of our family members who sustained serious injuries – 25 year-old Bill Nathan and 10 year-old Ti Patrick. We heard that their condition was critical, but they had supposedly been released from the hospital.

Rumors suggested that Bill fell approximately 75 feet from the 7th floor of his home. We were unable to confirm, and we feared the worst.

Miraculously, two Haitian doctors in the United States suddenly materialized from the network of St. Joseph friends and volunteered their services in exchange for passage to check on their own families.

Our final traveler was Ben Skinner, a Harvard Fellow and author of A Crime So Monstrous, a captivating narrative detailing child slavery in Haiti. He was looking for a way into the country to provide coverage for Time magazine and ABC, but his real motivation was the same as mine. In his previous trip to Haiti he contracted malaria – and Bill Nathan nursed him back to health. Bill, he asserted, saved his life, and he needed that extra seat. He sounded like a man who would not be denied. He soon became a vital addition.

The plan was simple – everyone get to Ft. Lauderdale ASAP and get the plane airborne on Friday.

The only reason we got into Haiti (when no private or charter planes were allowed to land) was the good folks at EcoAir. Owner Michael Lewis-Keister, with North Carolina and military connections, projected a calm, confident front. We’ll get you into PAP no matter what it takes, he promised. Haiti is easy, he explained – they don’t even shoot at you. St. Joseph’s network of friends came through again, and knew I found my pilot.

Our day of departure started very early at a Florida Waffle House. Ben plopped down in the seat across the booth and we both took deep breaths at what lay ahead for us. We scanned each other for signs of trepidation or fear. To break the tension, I told him that we were about to face our greatest danger of the day – eating at Waffle House.  We laughed and decided levity would also accompany us on the trip.

While we waited for our Haitian doctors to materialize, Ben and I made a quick trip to a 24-hour WalMart. We pushed carts inside and soon became lost in excessive choices, Musak and the fluorescent glow – how do you pick up a few items when your three homes have been destroyed by an earthquake? I separated from Ben and sought refuge in the toy department.

Quickly I realized a serious miscalculation as carefree dolls seemed to flaunt their suburban bliss. Shrunken Hummers and Land Rovers lined the aisles. Even the balls seemed manipulative and over-the-top, complete with corporate logos and signatures that mean nothing to a Haitian child. The excess filled me with more sadness than any street scene in Jacmel or Cap Haitien.

Our doctors arrived late and we eventually left the airfield after much delay. Our cell phones were going crazy and there were a thousand loose ends – it was a relief to be in the air. We stopped at the island of Inagua, the southernmost Bahamian island known as the home of Morton salt marshes. A little fuel and off to Haiti. The plane got quiet and serious.

I still don’t know how we ended up on the Port au Prince tarmac. Ground control told us we were not cleared to land, then suddenly told us we were in the 5th slot. Expect at least a two hour wait because the tarmac is full and there was no fuel on the island, we heard.  Just 10 minutes later I listened to the best news of the day – N821B cleared to land. Miracle number one.

Chaos. News crews, military, and medics mingled on the tarmac. I was suddenly rubbing elbows with Katie Couric, Diane Sawyer, Robin Roberts, Anderson Cooper and other television personalities seeking stories from the relative calm of the airport. We had no information about how feasible ground transportation would be. Let’s get there and wing it, I remember thinking. Incredibly, out in front of the airport was Rony, the best driver in Haiti we knew from other trips. I still don’t know how we connected – miracle number two.

As we headed into the darkness, it seemed the entire city was sleeping in streets, parks – any place without walls. Even in extremely crowded parks, Haitians would not sleep under small trees out of fear of further collapse and devastation. Over the next 24 hours, we heard and saw firsthand the psychological torment among Haiti’s citizens. Winding our way through open streets, we came upon a large circle of perhaps 100 Haitians gathered around a solitary flaming paint can. The illuminated faces had both smiles and tears while their voices reverently sang Bondye Bon…God is good.

We found Bill in a small two-room neighborhood clinic, no electricity, face down on a thin mattress. His eyes were glazed over and pain filled his body. The doctors quickly determined we had to get him out soon. Our abstract mission suddenly became real and terrifying – we were in a rubble-strewn back alley in Port au Prince and Bill might die in our care. Lots of things would have to go very right for him to even have a chance.

After making other stops around Port au Prince, the night ended on a pad at Wings of Hope, one of our homes about 8 miles outside the city. Approximately 40 children slept in the small former dining area.

All night long the kids would awaken screaming from nightmares fed by earthquake memories. For the next five hours I stared into the darkness and witnessed their fear.

With an extra seat on the return flight, we picked up a 19 year-old American, Patrick Henry. This young man from Baltimore signed up for a routine week of mission work and instead received his first brush with mortality. He simply had seen too much and needed to return home. We managed to get Bill into Rony’s van and headed to the airport. During this ride Bill told us that he actually landed on his friend Walnus’ chicken and had blood all over his tee shirt. He then was attacked by three dogs who smelled and saw the blood. No one gets a break in Haiti.

The scene at the airport closely resembled the grainy new footage of people trying to get out of Vietnam at the end. American military personnel stood guard at the entrances and tried to keep some type of order and control. Hundreds of people pushed to gain access to the empty terminal, despite the fact that no commercial flights were scheduled to leave. We were blocked from entering as well, perhaps because we were trying to get a Haitian national out of the country (though he possesses a five year unlimited visa to the United States). Ben showed letters from Time magazine but the soldiers could not be certain they were authentic. We needed official press passes to enter.

Salvation came in the form of the Duke-Carolina rivalry. As we shouted over the crowd and tried all means possible to get in, the soldiers kept a tight grip on their rifles and their words. Nothing we said seemed to have any impact. I could tell from their voices they were likely from Ft. Bragg – clearly from North Carolina – and I suddenly realized I wore a Duke tee shirt. “I know why you aren’t letting us in,” I shouted. “Your whole patrol is a bunch of f@#%@*’ Carolina fans!”

They laughed, and suddenly we were talking about barbecue and getting out to Wrightsville in the spring. They soon found their commander and we were escorted inside. Miracle number three.

In all the turmoil, Bill took a turn for the worse. He collapsed and was spread on a luggage rack on the tarmac while massive cargo planes roared nearby. Medics from France and Qatar worked on him while we frantically searched for our pilot and plane. The chances were slim that our pilot would twice gain entry to the country (he had to overnight in the Dominican Republic).  Miracle number four when we spotted his mosquito-like plane out in the grass – against all odds he somehow made it in.

We were given immediate clearance to leave and needed to solve our next problems, finding fuel and passport stamps for entry back to the United States (all emigration processes vanished in Haiti with the earthquake). We headed for the Bahamas. The flight finally gave us time to reflect on the horrors in Haiti while Bill rested on a makeshift bed of backpacks. Dead bodies, stories of luck and courage, and the shock in everyones’ eyes. Around 11 am on Saturday we experienced a significant aftershock after a night of small tremors, and it sent the Haitians into full panic. In that brief moment, we understood this quake took something far more valuable than just property.

If you are a problem solver, you’ve met your match in Haiti – the logistical challenges boggle even the most task-oriented, analytical mind. The wise words of Anne Lamott rung in my ears during those 16 hours on the ground – was it really only 16 hours? – that we needed to take it bird by bird. Get the people food and water. Hold their hands and listen to their stories. Feel their pain.

Haitians are wonderful storytellers. As a Texan, I bale metaphors and feed ‘em to the cows – but I concede mastery to this culture. Out of the dust and rubble already are fabulous parallels to resurrection and talk of a bigger Haitian family that stretches across the globe. They know the road is hard – everything is hard in Haiti. But they learn as small children the phrase piti, piti, wazo fe nich li. 
Little by little, the bird builds its nest.

We land in Nassau. Everyone in the Bahamas is laid-back except the stern-faced customs woman sitting across the desk from us……clearly she had a miserable childhood. We eyed her stamp as if it were a large glass of cold water. We tried being nice. We tried funny. Woch nan dio pa konnen doule woch nan soley, I explained – the rock in the water does not know the pain of the rock in the sun. She crumpled the proverb and tossed it into her trashcan. Did we come this far just to land in customs purgatory?

Then something amazing happened – she excused herself for the bathroom and re-emerged as a different, pleasant person. I suddenly felt bad for my projections of her childhood – she just needed to pee.

South Florida was a blur. Emergency ambulance at the airport, Broward General Hospital, a CAT scan for Bill, discussing God vs. luck/physics with a doctor from Tel Aviv. We later found out the EMS workers, who heard Bill’s story in a seven minute ride, took up a collection for him. This man needs to live, they concluded.

Miracle number five is Bill himself. He fell 75 feet onto concrete and suffered broken ribs, an abrasion to his liver and some damage to his vertebrae that will heal over time without surgery. He survived three days in immense pain while the ground continued to shake. He survived a rough six hour plane flight back to the States. He survived a 12-hour road trip from Ft. Lauderdale to Raleigh. Despite all these challenges, the pain that seems to hurt the most is being separated from St. Joseph’s children and his country of Haiti. Bill is completely out of his element recuperating in the US – he is a man who only knows how to give.

I do not know if Haiti’s prayers will be answered, but the spirit that makes Haiti special cannot be taken away by natural disaster. It is a country of survivors against all odds – never bet against the Haitian people.

— Miles Wright

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