Virginia college group describes surviving Haiti earthquake

By Michael Alison Chandler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 20, 2010

WEYERS CAVE, VA. -- Two students from Blue Ridge Community College were driving down a rutted road in southern Haiti last Tuesday afternoon with two faculty advisers when they heard a giant clap of rocks and their van began to rock.

"Women were ripping off their shirts; they thought it was the Apocalypse. They were running, screaming," said Rebecca Evans, an accounting professor and faculty adviser for the trip. "Buildings were just crumbling down. There were clouds of dust in the distance."

For Michael Aronoff, 21, of Vienna and Megan Samples, 19, of Dumfries, the trip began as an idealistic venture to help build a rabbit-farming cooperative in the village of Signeau, south of Port-au-Prince. It turned into a disaster relief mission and finally a narrow escape from a desperate crowd at the Haitian capital's airport.

The students, along with Evans and the other adviser, Gail Foley, a Blue Ridge veterinary technician, held a news conference Tuesday at their school, south of Harrisonburg, to describe how they survived the Haitian earthquake and made it home. As they talked, images of collapsed buildings and bloodied bodies flashed on a screen behind them.

The group arrived in Port-au-Prince early the day before the earthquake. They drove past street vendors and crowded slums to Riviere Froide, a mountain village about 20 miles away that would be their base for the week. They settled into a convent guesthouse and had a meal of beans, goat and fried plantains. Then they spent the afternoon at a neighboring school, visiting classes and meeting the students, who sang songs, played games with the visitors and taught them bits of Creole.

"Haiti is an extremely beautiful place," Samples wrote in a blog entry after their first day in Haiti. She described the landscape and the afternoon with the children: "It was a privilege to be able to meet them."

Early the next day, they left for Signeau, about an hour away, where they built rabbit cages to help families start small businesses. On the way home, they stopped at several markets in search of sugar cane for a treat after a satisfying day of work. They were less than a mile from the school when the earthquake struck.

As they approached the school on foot, children, dusty and bleeding, ran down the mountain toward them. The school had collapsed; the guesthouse was destroyed.

Through the night, fathers clawed through the rubble for their children. Bodies were placed in a mass grave; the living were treated for their wounds and covered with blankets.

The volunteers from Virginia made bandages and offered comfort to the survivors -- a hand to hold, a lap in which to cradle their heads.

We were "trying to do what we could to keep people from dying," Aronoff said in an interview with The Washington Post before the news conference.

They watched as mothers searched for their children, peering under each blanket. They listened for hours to the mournful chants from nearby villages, interrupted only by aftershocks. They estimated that at least half of the more than 400 children who were in the school that afternoon died.

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