In fast 3 seconds, world caved in

Rick Santos, who spent 50 harrowing hours trapped in a tiny cavern of rubble underneath the Hotel Montana in Haiti, has trouble summing up the impact of the near-death experience on his psyche.

"I'm still in a bit of shock right now," said Santos, a normally brisk talker whose voice slowed but didn't quite catch when asked if the ordeal changed him. "I think the full weight of it hasn't hit me. ... I'll deal with it when it comes."

But as head of a charitable international health organization based in Maryland, he's already planning a return trip to the poor Caribbean nation and a redoubled aid effort to rebuild its leveled hospital and clinical infrastructure. Santos, a 46-year-old Silver Spring resident and president of IMA World Health, arrived home Saturday, not long after rescuers pulled him and his colleagues from beneath the collapsed five-story hotel.

"I don't want the Haitians to be forgotten; they are going to be facing this forever," said Santos, his voice back to a quick cadence. "People have to continue to be involved in any way they can, by donating to the Red Cross, donating to us or by talking to their congressman. Everyone needs to stay mobilized."

In an extensive interview with The Sun, Santos repeatedly expressed concern that the world's attention, often dictated by a capricious 24-hour news cycle, will soon shift away from the devastation wreaked in Haiti by the most powerful earthquake it has seen in two centuries. That's why, he said, he plans to continue telling his tale even as he mourns two fellow aid workers who were trapped with him and died from their injuries, and even as he braces for the shock to wear off.

Richard L. "Rick" Santos was new on the job, having joined IMA, a coalition of faith-based relief groups headquartered in Carroll County, in October. Before that, he worked with International Relief and Development and the Church World Service, and traveled to Asia, Africa and Latin America. He had been in an earthquake in Indonesia and seen devastation from disaster and conflict, but hadn't experienced anything on the scope of Haiti's devastation.

Last week he was in Port-au-Prince, meeting with the U.S. Agency for International Development and others about Lymphatic Filariasis, also known as Elephantiasis, a "neglected tropical disease" that causes enlargement of limbs or genitals and that's been found in Haiti. His organization hoped to introduce effective treatment and prevention methods there.

That's what he and two of his employees were doing Tuesday afternoon at the Hotel Montana, meeting with several counterparts from the United Methodist Committee on Relief. They planned to have dinner and were walking through the high-ceilinged lobby when they felt the ground shake. Santos looked up to see the chandelier swaying.

"And then the entire place just collapsed on us," he said. "That fast, three seconds."

They didn't have time to react, much less get to a door frame or dive under the nearby front desk. Miraculously, two concrete beams crashed into each other, creating a sort of tepee directly above their heads. "If we had been a few feet further in any direction, we would have been crushed. I don't know how any of us survived that initial impact," he said. "It's a miracle, or whatever you want to call it."

The six aid workers, accustomed to responding to emergencies, started calling out to each other to assess injuries and how they could help. Santos and IMA staffer Ann Varghese of Baltimore seemed to have only minor cuts and bruises. Dr. Sarla Chand, a New Jersey resident who also works for IMA, seemed worse off and was in a separate area. Two from UMCOR, the Rev. Clinton Rabb and the Rev. Dr. Sam Dixon, were pinned under debris.

They also heard another voice, someone calling himself Dan from Colorado, who said he was communicating with a Haitian hotel worker trapped nearby him.

Then they settled in to wait in the cramped compartment that afforded them room to sit up but not stand. Santos panicked at first about having enough oxygen to survive but eventually figured there were enough cracks open to the front of the building to keep air flowing. It was pitch-black, and they used their iPods, cell phones and a laptop for light. They had no water or food, save chewing gum and one Tootsie Pop that Santos had in his bag.

Some people came by and pounded on the concrete above their heads with what sounded like sledgehammers. Santos and the others told them there were eight of them. But they didn't hear anything more, and another night came, and they grew despondent, wondering why those people didn't come back. They heard helicopters overhead, but nothing else.

"We shared things about our families; we talked about not wanting to die; we talked about getting out; we told jokes," he said.

Privately, Santos thought about his wife, Silvana, and sons, 4-year-old Lucas and 3-year-old Alexander. "I really love them so much, and that was a very peaceful and comforting thought," he said. "Then I would think, 'I'm never going to see them again,' and became depressed."

The aftershocks were truly frightening. The shaking caused debris to settle further and their compartment to shrink. They also knew what the rescuers were up against. They had done this kind of work. They knew it would take a while for rescuers to arrive. They resolved to survive as long as they could.

On Thursday, they heard voices - and then screaming and then the sound of a saw cutting away the concrete and tile floors. French firemen pulled Santos out by his feet, carrying him on a stretcher over and under several more layers of rubble. Rescue workers from Fairfax, Va., took care of him and pointed out they were neighbors. "At that moment, I thought 'I'm really out,' " he said.

Other international responders let him use a satellite phone to call his wife. "I said 'I'm fine,' and she said, 'I know.' " She had watched his rescue on television.

Santos and his colleagues were put on a plane hours later, and he described his happiest moments as seeing the stars and then sunlight for the first time since being trapped, and most of all seeing his family again.

He didn't immediately know that two in his group didn't make it. Dixon, head of the United Methodist Church's humanitarian relief agency, died before he could be rescued, the church said in a statement. Rabb, who organized mission volunteers for the church, was airlifted to a Florida hospital where he died.

"They were with us and alive the whole time," Santos said. "When we left, the four who were able to leave, we saw the emergency folks came in and were treating them. We were hopeful everyone would survive." (He later learned from news reports that the Colorado man had been rescued; he doesn't know whether the Haitian worker survived.)

Now Santos and IMA are planning to send shipments of medicine and supplies to clinics and hospitals in Haiti, and, over the long term, he wants to heighten the organization's focus on recovery there.

Once emergency operations shift into rebuilding, Santos plans to return. "I'm hoping to go back as soon as I can."