Md. aid group shares tears of joy and relief

Baltimore Sun

Trapped with two colleagues in the rubble of a hotel in Haiti, the 46-year-old president of a Carroll County aid organization reached for a sucker.

"I always have a lollipop for my son to keep him happy in the car or something," a smiling Rick Santos told ABC News, describing the 50-hour ordeal that he, Dr. Sarla Chand and Ann Varghese endured in Port-au-Prince. "I just had it in my bag, so we shared a lollipop."

That and some chewing gum.

Santos and his colleagues at IMA World Health emerged from the wreckage of the Hotel Montana looking relatively unscathed. Their remarkable rescue brought tears of joy and huge relief to employees of the New Windsor-based organization.

"Maybe we were in denial, who knows?" IMA Vice President Douglas Bright said Friday. "But we hadn't lost hope."

Bright was "dumbfounded" by how well his colleagues looked in photos taken after the Thursday rescue. "In their words and in the words of our staff," he said, "they are well."

Santos, Chand and Baltimore resident Varghese, who manages IMA's program in Haiti to combat neglected tropical diseases, had just concluded a meeting at the hotel and were walking through the lobby about 5 p.m. Tuesday when the quake struck.

"Something hit my head," Chand, who lives in New Jersey and is IMA vice president for international programs, told ABC. "If I didn't keep moving, I think I'll be dead."

"On either side of us were these huge pillars that had ... " Santos said, searching for a word and then smacking his hands together. "Pretty much, there was no room. It pancaked. It fell, and we all were in the same spot."

That cramped space was 3 feet high, 8 feet long and 5 feet wide, the network reported. Chand, 65, who had what looked like a cut over her left eye, said of the rescue: "To me, it is second life."

At IMA's New Windsor offices, whoops and cheers resounded Friday morning from a conference room overlooking cornfields and a red barn. Human resources director Gary Lavan gathered the staff for a closed-door meeting to officially announce the rescue at the ruined hotel.

"There's a lot of elation all around," Bright said. "I've seen more hugging going on this morning than you'd normally see in a workplace. Everybody's just happy."

Later Friday, IMA got more good news, confirmation that all five of its Haitian staff members were safe. Dr. Abdel Direny leads the office, aided by a pharmacist, bookkeeper, assistant and driver. (Jhpiego, an international health nonprofit in Baltimore, also reported Friday that all six of its Haitian employees were alive and safe.)

Meanwhile, IMA, a coalition of faith-based relief groups with 50 years of experience, continues to assess how to help Haiti cope with the destruction. As soon as it makes logistical sense, IMA plans to ship medicine boxes and hygiene kits, hundreds of which are packed and waiting.

Warehouse worker Rosella Reese was busy Friday packing up bottles of the antibiotic Biaxin. But Patty Pickett, assistant vice president for operations, said IMA must ensure that the supplies can be put to use.

"Timing and logistics," Pickett said, noting that medicines will spoil if they sit too long at the airport in Port-au-Prince.

For Pickett, as for everyone at IMA, the earthquake has been trying on multiple levels. The small staff has been working long days on its humanitarian mission. But employees have also had to cope with the anguish of not knowing about their colleagues and friends.

Pickett got her first dose of good news at 4:30 a.m. Friday while watching the news. She saw video footage of Chand taken moments after rescuers freed her from the wreckage.

Pickett wept with joy and thought, "That's at least one of them."

She didn't know it, but by then, Bright and other IMA executives had received more exciting news. They'd also heard about the rescue of Santos and Varghese.

Bright recalled Thursday night as a nerve-racking "roller coaster." It began with confirmation that Santos, Chand and Varghese had indeed been at the hotel for a meeting shortly before it collapsed. That was ominous.

About 10 p.m., Bright was trolling the Internet for news. One place he checked was a Facebook page set up for the Hotel Montana. He scrolled through the litany of appeals from family and friends, a wrenching collection that reminded him of the fliers people posted around Ground Zero in Manhattan after the Sept. 11 attacks.

Scanning a news article, Bright felt his mood soar as he read that seven people had been found alive in the hotel. "Oh, great!" he thought.

An instant later, he read that all seven were hotel employees and that they seemed to be the only survivors. "My heart sank," he said.

Then, a half-hour later, his phone rang. It was Dana McDonald, IMA's chief operating officer. She was in charge while Santos, the president, was in Haiti for meetings.

"They found them! They're alive!" McDonald shouted into the phone. By "they" she meant Santos and Chand. Santos' brother had called McDonald, and she had learned about Chand through other channels.

But Bright did not yet know the fate of Varghese, who moved to Baltimore last year to work for IMA after earning a master's degree in international health policy and management at Brandeis University.

Around 2 a.m., McDonald called Bright again. They were all safe, she said.

"Ann, too?" Bright said. Ann, too. After a burst of elation, Bright closed his eyes and enjoyed his first decent sleep in days.

Instead of preparing for the worst, Bright is looking forward to his colleagues' return. He said they had been taken to the U.S. Embassy in Port-au-Prince as a first step toward beginning the journey home.

Santos, who lives in Silver Spring with his wife and two young sons, joined IMA in October from International Relief and Development in Arlington, Va., where he was director of communications and advocacy. Before that, he worked at Church World Service Inc. as coordinator of strategic planning and evaluation. He has also served in Indonesia, Bangladesh and Vietnam.

Former IRD colleague Liz Creel called Santos "a true believer in the possibility that people could really make a difference, particularly in a very difficult environment."

A former president of IMA, Paul Derstine, said Chand has spent most of her professional career with the General Board of Global Ministries of the United Methodist Church.

"She is the consummate professional, setting high standards for herself and her colleagues," he said in an e-mail from Africa. "But she has a heart for the under-trodden and at a time in her life where she could be 'backing off,' she has taken on major global program interests for IMA."

Varghese grew up in Kansas and attended the University of Kansas, said Dan Flanagan, a graduate school friend. In her 20s she lived in Cameroon as a Peace Corps volunteer, he said. She also worked on global hunger issues for the advocacy group Bread for the World, according to the America India Foundation.

Her position with IMA was a "dream job," Flanagan said, because it allowed her to travel and help those in need.

Flanagan grew deeply worried about Varghese. But he also knew she was strong. Before her rescue, he and a friend joked that if anyone could make it out, she could. In that fantasy, she emerged from the rubble with "a cigarette in one hand and her martini in the other."

"In the back of your mind you had the hope," he said. "Then it actually happens."

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