Boston transplant Rich Innocent relays a tale of survival, teamwork among the people of Delmas
For the third consecutive night, Richardson Innocent will rest his head tonight underneath a tree in Delmas, a neighborhood of Port-au-Prince. There’s a machete and a chisel close by his side. Clustered around him is his cousin, Norton, and a frightened family he has known for only a few weeks.
All over the neighborhood, a rumor has spread that another aftershock is coming tonight at midnight. No one will sleep indoors for fear of being entombed in rubble like so many others all around them if another one hits.
Innocent, 36, isn’t sure what to think any more. A longtime Boston resident who just moved back to his native Haiti last month, he’s not the superstitious type. But, after the events of the last 60 hours, he’s not taking any chances. He and a group of nine others will sleep under the tree tonight, far enough away from a nearby house, one of the few still standing in Delmas 35.
In the morning, Richardson and his cousin will rise early and hit the streets of this community on the outskirts of Haiti’s destroyed capitol city. They will spend their daylight hours searching for survivors and for supplies to help feed their friends and neighbors.
Every able-bodied person in the neighborhood is doing their part. Without any discernable help from the outside world — there are no rescue teams, no soldiers, no heavy equipment in Delmas yet— Haitians are helping Haitians.
“It’s amazing. Every house you see, there are just regular people going at it with a chisel or a hammer. They are knocking down walls. They are taking their lives into their own hands,” says Rich.
A close friend and former Reporter colleague, Richardson arrived here a month ago to help his cousin realize a long-time dream: They were going to build a rice mill in rural Haiti to help the farmers of the nation improve their lot. He had long talked of returning to Haiti to build a better future for his homeland. This week, he is doing that in ways he never imagined.
“For me right now, I feel like God sent me here for a purpose. Nothing’s happened to me, not a scrape. I’m doing all these things. I thought when I’d see blood I’d pass out. I’m not. I’m carrying dead bodies. I’m pulling people out with my own hands. I feel like I’m in a war basically. Every third building is on the ground, crushed.”
Richardson is talking very quickly, pushing out a torrent of information, afraid perhaps that our cell phone connection will end abruptly.
“Every morning, all the young guys in the neighborhood get up and hit the streets right away, we go through the rubble and we try to get people out. We can still hear the people inside some of them screaming for help, for water.”
“The bodies are decaying and there’s no real aid from anyone yet. We’re doing everything by hand ourselves. I’ve pulled people out, I’ve carried dead bodies. I’ve done things I never thought I’d have to do.”
Yesterday, Richardson and a group of men pulled a woman out of a collapsed five-story building just down the street. It took them two days of digging to get to her.
“For me I felt so good when I saw her come out. We could hear her crying for two days. We just kept digging with hammers, chisels. There are people here doing this with no regard for their own lives. Me with my own hands, we all pulled her out of there. It was quite scary. I was in tears.”
The men carried the woman to a hospital in Delmas, only to find that there was no one available there to treat her. Someone there gave the woman some Ibuprofen, Rich says, and the men left her there to go search for more victims in the same building. There are likely ten or more people trapped beneath the rubble. Tonight he is certain that most, if not all, are deceased.
“There are students all over this town, Delmas, and Petionville who are still screaming. They’re in schools – universities— you can literally hear them screaming for help and for water.”
“If you walk on streets, you’ll see dead bodies everywhere. I’ve seen probably 12 [corpses] along the roads. They’re starting to come by with trucks to take them away.”
During the daytime hours, people in Delmas are congregating in parks to look for food, water and a sense of direction. There has been no sign whatsoever of any government officials or foreign aid.
“The park is a big melee,” Rich says. “People just start running when they say ‘water’ or ‘tsunami’. It’s just chaos. People are getting trampled, there are accidents, people leaving here and getting in car accidents.”
Rich and his cousin say they would likely try to leave too, but there is no gasoline for their vehicle. A bridge down the road is so damaged that everyone fears it will collapse and homemade signs warn of the likely danger.
Richardson and his cousin were visiting friends in Delmas when the quake hit on Tuesday afternoon.
“I was walking out of house and the building started shaking and one of the girls and couple of friends started running. I looked at sky and the building— it’s a one floor house. I grabbed her and when we walked inside, the kids came running. I had them all pinned to ground. Then we ran outside and [the shaking] came back again.”
Once the first major quake ended, Rich began to run through the neighborhood with other men, frantically trying to rescue neighbors on the street who were pinned under concrete blocks.
“I dug out a lady, who had three kids underneath her. She was alive, but the kids were dead. This was right next door. Across the street right now there’s a baby underneath the rubble and the parents are going crazy.”
Rich is anxious to know more about when help will arrive from abroad. They’ve heard rumors that the U.S. Marines are on their way and everyone is hoping this word is true.
“I’m shocked that there’s not worse going on here,” Rich says. “I have not seen one official to come and speak to anyone in Delmas. On the radio they have people calling in, saying, you know, ‘Mom I’m okay,’ that sort of thing. There are no officials saying anything. We’re working and policing ourselves. We are the police.”
Stuck without gas to drive his cousin’s vehicle and their friends from the area, Rich says he has no plans to walk the two hours to the airport, where he — as a U.S. citizen— could likely depart.
“I can't leave here. I can’t do that right now. We’ve given up on saving rest of the family, we smell the bodies. The people who I have been living with here, I want to help send them back to where they came from (other towns in Haiti). Then I can say I can leave.
“I wouldn’t feel good being at home when I know they are here sleeping in the yard with no security.”
Nighttime is the most difficult, Rich says. There is no electricity and the only lights they do have is from the occasional passing vehicle and the glow from his cell phone. He keeps it charged thanks to a neighbor with a generator who trades the service for water.
The group is increasingly worried about being accosted. A cinder-block fence that had been damaged in the quake is now down completely, pushed over by the men who feared it would topple onto people in one of the dozens of tremors that have followed Tuesday’s 7.0 monster. The yard that is now their outdoor living quarters is exposed to the street. Richardson is aware that many convicts are roaming through the streets after the collapse of the city's prison. He met one of them today, a man laboring alongside him in an effort to free buried victims.
"He was joking about it," says Rich. "He said, 'The governent's fallen and my record is clean. I'm born all over again."
Last night, the latest aftershock hit.
“You can hear houses falling. You can’t see them, but we see the ground shake and we just watch out. We lay between the house and fence under this tree. I’m under it right now. We have to sleep in here, because if we were to sleep out on the street, there’s no sidewalk, and cars could roll right over us.”
The only good news in Rich’s onslaught of misery is that his household has enough food and water for the moment. His cousin had stocked up on rice, beans and spaghetti. At every opportunity, they buy bread and water from street vendors, who are now selling food at exorbitant prices.
Still, Rich and his companions are increasingly worried that their stockpiles will run low if help doesn’t reach Delmas soon. Our conversation provides some of the first actual news they have heard about the world’s mammoth relief efforts. I tell them that help is on the way, although I can’t be sure how long it will take. The whole world is watching this unfold, I tell him.
He doesn’t sound convinced.
“Tell them, please,” Rich says. “They need to get here. People are dying who could have survived.”