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Lutchmedial finds joy amid the pain as he recounts his Haiti experience
Reliving the horrific scenes of the 2010 earthquake is still painful for Ramesh Lutchmedial. Everyday for the last three years, gruesome images are replayed in his mind and he’s reluctant to talk about the events of January 12, 2010. He spent most of yesterday in quiet solitude—still in some sadness but with gratitude for life.
But sadness this year won’t be as intense as the years before since the newest addition to his family arrived on Thursday night when his daughter-in-law, Sumi gave birth to a bouncing baby boy, Sameer. Lutchmedial said the arrival of baby Sameer represented the joy of life.
As he welcomed his fourth grandson into the world, he recalled the cries of a baby trapped in the rubble of an apartment building. He had tried to mobilise volunteers for the mother, only known as Emily, who had asked for his assistance to search in the rubble. Luckily, while the baby was found and reunited with its mother, the two siblings and father never survived. Lutchmedial only found this out last year when he made contact with the mother via the Internet.
He spoke with the Sunday Guardian about the experience last week. The 60-year-old director general of the T&T Civil Aviation Authority was in the impoverished Caribbean nation three years ago when tragedy struck at 4.53 pm. He was among a group of 17 aviation officials from the region who was in Port-au-Prince for a Caribbean Aviation Safety and Security Oversight System board meeting.
They were booked at the Montana and Caribe hotels. Apart from the tragic events he witnessed, Lutchmedial also had to cope with the death of his good friend, Gregory McAlpin. McAlpin, a Trinidadian living in Antigua for 11 years, died in the rubble in Haiti. He was the director of flight safety in the Antigua Eastern Caribbean Civil Aviation Authority (ECCAA).
His remains were discovered on February 22. Three other delegates—Rosemond James, 49, director general of the ECCAA, Siegfried Francisco, 57, director of the Directorate of Civil Aviation Netherlands Antilles, and his safety airworthiness inspector, 55-year-old Auxencio Isenia also perished in the rubble of the 7.3-magnitude earthquake.
The ill-fated day
“Sometimes I feel what occurred three years ago is a dream. “There is so much to tell about my Haitian earthquake experience that started the day before I left. “I did and said strange things such as putting light bulbs all around my home telling my family that I wouldn’t be around and that I wanted the place to be bright while I was gone,” Lutchmedial said.
But he said his most unexplained act was his last minute decision not to go on board American Airlines flight 880 to Haiti from Miami scheduled for 9.55 am. He had changed his flight to 2.05 pm and arrived in Haiti at 4 pm. He said, “I changed my flight despite the unyielding urgings of my colleagues who were adamant that I travel on the same flight with them.”
In seconds, buildings collapsed before his eyes, bodies were trapped under debris, people were running frantically and before he knew it, the earthquake destroyed the nation. Close to 250,000 people perished. He spent the night of the tragedy on a lawn tennis court without electricity, telephone and toilet facilities.
“Those memories will live on forever but I have learnt valuable life lessons from that experience,” he said.
Around 10.30 pm on the day the earthquake struck, he said a woman named Emily approached him in the tennis court of the Caribe Hotel with bleeding hands and asked that he help her “dig out” her husband and three daughters who were trapped on the ground floor of a five-storey apartment building next to the hotel. She was from New Zealand working with the United Nations in Haiti.
She was screaming. He said he started to mobilise volunteers to assist in the search but was advised against going near the building as it was perched at an angle and was swaying with very frequent aftershocks. He said, “The next morning around 5.30 am, the woman approached me again for help.
“I mobilised three volunteers and we went over to the building which appeared as though it would collapse at any minute. “I heard the cries of a child but there were huge chunks of concrete which made rescue efforts extremely difficult. “Earth moving equipment was required but there was none available.” He tried his best, he said.
The next day, with no food or water, and not able to speak French, he decided to make his way to the airport to contact foreign rescue personnel. He wanted to return home. Although he returned safely to his family and friends, Lutchmedial said he often wondered what had happened to the father and three daughters.
Bringing some closure
Around the middle of last year, he met an old friend at a hardware store who said he had seen a news clip on CNN about a woman who had lost her husband and daughters in Haiti.
Alarm bells rang through his head and he immediately used the Internet to find her. She was Emily Sanson-Rejouis. She lost her husband, 39-year-old Emmanuel and daughters, five-year-old Kofie-Jade and three-year-old Zenzie. The youngest child—one-year-old Alyahna—survived and was pulled out from the rubble with a broken leg 22 hours after the earthquake struck.
When they made contact recently, Lutchmedial said she told him one of her greatest challenges was to explain to her surviving daughter what happened to her father and two sisters. “I informed her that I had video clipping of their apartment building and the surrounding areas which she requested that I send to her.”
The video was recorded on his mobile phone. He had filmed the collapsed apartment and the cries of the baby are heard in the background. It was baby Alyahna. “That has brought closure to one of the many chapters about my Haitian experience.” Sanson-Rejouis has since set up a foundation—The Kenbe La Foundation to assist victims of the earthquake.
Kenbe La means never give up in Haitian Creole. According to Sanson-Rejouis on kenbelefoundation.org, “It is a vehicle for hope in the face of a tragedy that is literally incomprehensible.”
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