Freed from rubble, back on the job

Baltimore Sun

Monday dawned wet, gray and windy, but Ann Varghese wanted to get back to work. Needed to, she felt, after all that had happened. At 7:15, she pulled onto Charles Street and drove out to Carroll County for the first time since enduring 55 hours in a collapsed hotel in Haiti.

"Hi, everybody," Varghese, 31, said cheerfully as she walked into the New Windsor offices of IMA World Health. One by one, she hugged several co-workers amid smiles and bits of laughter. Someone clapped. Hovering over the happy reunion was a yellow balloon with a big smiley face.

"Good to see you, good to see you," said Esther Ndiang'ui, director of international programs at IMA, a nonprofit group that provides health care services and supplies to impoverished countries.

The only seated colleague was Sarla Chand, who was with Varghese and IMA President Rick Santos at the Hotel Montana Jan. 12 when an earthquake leveled the hotel and much of Port-au-Prince.

Still aching and bruised, the 65-year-old Chand rose creakily to greet Varghese. Soon she was describing the ordeal, sharing one detail not even Varghese knew: Chand's laptop bag, wedged hopelessly in the debris, had held a bottle of coveted water. She kept it quiet at the time to avoid making the thirsty group thirstier.

For Varghese, who emerged from the rubble physically unharmed, going back to work made sense.

She wanted to help IMA move its Haitian staff and their families out of the country temporarily for their safety. She wanted to check on programs she oversees in India and Togo, and learn more about one she's taken on in Sudan.

She also wanted to assess the status of the program she coordinates in Haiti. It administers drugs to prevent two debilitating tropical diseases that afflict much of the population. (For now, IMA's main focus in Haiti is earthquake relief: It has shipped 80 boxes, each with medication and supplies to treat common illnesses of 1,000 people for two months.)

And she wanted to be busy. "It'll be good to keep my mind occupied with that stuff."

Varghese said she has had unsettling dreams since being rescued. In one, she was in a chaotic place that resembled Haiti. In another she was in an elevator that began shaking and "everything started to come down." She says she may talk to a counselor who has been made available to IMA's staff.

Santos, who is expected back at IMA today, encouraged her to take as much time off as she needed. Last week she visited her family in Wichita, Kan., an experience she said was comforting and restorative.

She has avoided news coverage, but finds it therapeutic to talk about the episode. She has told the story again and again - to family and friends, to Wichita State University students, to reporters in India. Yet "it still feels like it happened to someone else."

She vividly remembers the moment the world crashed down, just after 5 p.m. She, Chand and Santos were in the lobby of the elegant, five-story Hotel Montana. They had wrapped up a meeting and were going to have dinner with three members of the United Methodist Committee on Relief.

She started to ask someone at the front desk where the restaurant was, but recalls: "I wasn't even able to get anything out of my mouth before we started to feel the shaking." She began turning to the others, but "within a matter of seconds literally the entire building had collapsed."

Everyone but Chand wound up in a cavern roughly 3 feet high, 8 feet long and 5 feet wide. Chand was on the other side of a collapsed wall. Two of the Methodists were pinned by debris and later died. Choking on dust, Varghese thought a bomb had gone off. The others knew it was an earthquake, as repeated aftershocks confirmed.

Sitting in the cramped, dark space proved agonizing. The ground was so jagged that it felt like broken glass, requiring her to shift every few minutes. Because of the tight squeeze, she, Santos and the third Methodist, Jim Gulley, had to coordinate every leg stretch to avoid banging one another.

They turned on laptops in a vain attempt to get a signal. They tried without luck to place cell phone calls. Instead they used the devices only to track time and occasionally light up their cavern.

To pass the time, they prayed. The men sang. Chand and Santos joked about whether they would make a planned work trip to Africa.Varghese also talked to Gulley about the path she took from Kansas to Haiti. After graduating from the University of Kansas, she lived in Cameroon for two years as a Peace Corps volunteer - a choice her immigrant parents struggled to understand given their dogged pursuit of the American Dream. Last summer, after getting a master's degree at Brandeis University, she was hired by IMA.

As the minutes ticked away, the group's hopes would rise, only to ebb. Wednesday morning, they heard voices and shouted for help. Whoever it was acknowledged their plea from beyond the rubble.

"We thought, OK, now here is the help ... " Varghese said. "Then we never heard anything again."

More than anything, she worried the rubble would shift and crush them all.

On Thursday, she grew despondent. She recalls telling Santos that she doubted she could survive another night. "He said, 'Yes, of course you can.' "

In the end, there was no third night. The big break came early that evening when Chand found an opening she intended to explore Friday. Then she saw some light: A man with a flashlight.

"Do you need help?" she remembers asking him. No, he said, he was a French firefighter who was there to help them. By the time Varghese finally emerged, around midnight, it had been 55 hours.

With so much of Haiti now in ruin, Varghese admits she doesn't know what will happen to the program to combat tropical diseases. But she is confident the mass drug administration will resume as soon as possible. And she plans to return to Haiti.

"This is the work I love," she said. "They need our help more than ever. Just seeing what it looked like when I left, there's no way I could turn my back on it now."


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