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Maryland pastor's family stranded in Haiti after deadly earthquake

By Theola Labbé-DeBose and Wil Haygood
Thursday, January 21, 2010; A01

At 5:30 on the morning of Tuesday, Jan. 12, William Saint-Hilaire rose from his tiny Silver Spring basement apartment to get ready for work. By 2 o'clock, he had finished at his job installing sprinkler systems for a company in Bethesda and returned home for a bite. A short while later, he left for a 4:45 appointment at Montgomery County Community College to meet with an academic counselor about an English course he hoped to take.

"I was sitting there," he recalls, "talking to the counselor, and my cellphone started going off." He had the phone on vibrate. He did not want to be rude by answering it, so he let it go.

In the hallway after the meeting, Saint-Hilaire finally pulled the cellphone from his pocket. "It was a member from my church. She said, 'There's been an earthquake in Haiti! In Port-au-Prince!' " Saint-Hilaire ran to his car and raced toward his church in Adelphi. He pulled up in the parking lot of Eglise Baptiste du Calvaire where he is an assistant pastor, and rushed inside. On the television in a church office he saw images of destruction, of the dead and barely alive. The people around him seemed to suddenly recede from his line of vision. Within moments, an eerie calm settled inside him.

His wife and six children lived in a small house in Petionville in Port-au-Prince, where the 7.0 earthquake had struck. And so Saint-Hilaire knew what he knew: "My family is dead," he uttered to himself. "They are no more."

Lissa, his wife, and their children, Billy, 16, Bella, 15, Bello, 14, Benedict, 13, and the lovely and rambunctious 8-year-old twins, Belline and Bellinda. Gone. As if clipped from all the picture frames inside his basement apartment. "They could not survive that."

And with this belief overtaking him, Saint-Hilaire shuddered and his eyes went blank as he seemed to rise up and away from his own limp body. Weightless. "I could no longer tell if I was on the ground -- or in the air."

* * *

Dinnertime was nearing and Lissa Saint-Hilaire was in the family's house preparing a meal for the children and a couple of neighbors. She had just finished cooking. Bella was upstairs with her and the others were in the basement, playing their musical instruments.

Then, she recalls: "I felt the earth move."

A rumble, and booming sounds. It was as if a giant bulldozer had come to life beneath the ground.

Her screaming seemed to be in the air before it left her throat. She heard her children's footsteps.

"Mommy! Mommy! Mommy!"

Six sets of terrified eyes. Books and food tumbled from shelves. Pictures, ceramic figures, candles clattered to the floor. Windows shattered. Sounds unlike any they'd ever heard: horror's soundtrack.

They ran to the roof. They could see buildings collapsing and slabs of brick falling. They rushed back downstairs. As if frozen, they crouched together in the living room. They began to pray, hoping God would hear. But with more booming, God's ears seemed a mighty long way away. "The blood of Jesus! The blood of Jesus!" one of the dinner guests cried out.

Lissa had to protect her children.

"Mommy! Mommy!"

Wind coming through the windows blew things about. Like baby sheep, the children scooted close to their mother. They thought the house might cave in. They threw shoes, a Bible, birth certificates, passports into a green pillowcase. They ran out, turned up an alley, roped together by their own sets of hands. Brick walls were falling. The earth had stopped moving, but things above it had not. They hurried aimlessly down another street.

"Mommy!"

It was Belline; then Bellinda; then Bello. Everyone screaming "Mommy!"

Out of breath, they stopped. And they saw it: Death, dying, howling. Little limbs as still as store dollbabies. Longer legs protruding from buildings and twisting like worms in mud.

The kids shuddered.

The falling ash was blinding them. The blind leading the blind.

Bella looked at Benedict who looked at Billy. Lissa counted her six children. One by one, ending with her inseparable twins. And, with dead bodies lying all around her, she knew what she knew: They were among the undead.

* * *

Theirs was a classical Haitian love story tinged with the intrigue and danger that have haunted the island nation for decades.

William Saint-Hilaire first met Lissa Jacquet in 1987 at church in Haiti. He was teaching junior high school math and some English. They were married five years later. Lissa liked that William was "a man of God," who also was doing some church ministry. They purchased a house -- No. 3 on Perdrix -- in Petionville. It had two floors and two bedrooms. They were able to make some additions over the years, supplemented by money Lissa earned as a hotel maid.

In 2001, backed by the United States government, former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide was returned to power in Haiti. His reign was fraught with controversy and accusations by human rights activists of skullduggery and thuggishness.

In time, William found himself speaking against the Aristide government in class. He was warned to stop. Authorities summoned him for questioning more than once. Then came the day in early 2002 when a fellow teacher, also outspoken, disappeared. In early 2003 Lissa, who had become increasingly worried about her husband's political stance, told him he should leave Haiti or risk not living to see his children grow up. At the airport, the children howled as Papi disappeared into the skies.

He settled first in Brooklyn, where he met a Haitian exile group, which helped him get to Silver Spring. He began working and sending money home to his family. He never let more than two days go by without calling home, and the voices of his wife and six children filled him with joy. For the past year, he has been working with an immigration lawyer to get visas so his family can come join him.

* * *

When Saint-Hilaire, 46, regained his equilibrium at the church on Jan. 12 in the hours after the earthquake, he started phoning his wife's number. It was as if the calls were landing inside of a cemetery. The cellphone towers had fallen inside Haiti. But something had begun to flicker faintly inside of him and he called, anyway. Then he started phoning friends in Miami and Orlando. Maybe they had heard something. Maybe they had talked to somebody who had talked to somebody who had seen Lissa and the children before the buildings began to fall.

He kept moving around the church, as if fearful that the next person he stopped to talk to might deliver some fateful news. He wandered down hallways and walked into offices, not knowing why he was there. He paced outside in the nippy air. He left to buy more phone cards.

He returned home to his basement apartment Tuesday night. He looked at pictures of his children. He thought of their favorite hobbies: He saw Billy playing the piano. He saw Bella on her computer looking at maps. He saw Benedict beating the drums. He saw the twins swaying side by side singing gospel music, which they loved doing every Sunday in church. Then when he lay down -- "finally at 3 a.m." -- he saw awful visions of his family beneath rubble. He saw church funerals. He bolted upright. "I was thinking if they are truly dead, what will I do?"

He had to get work, but he couldn't go because he couldn't concentrate. So with his boss's support, he returned to his church. The death toll kept rising, but for Saint-Hilaire those epic numbers were reduced, in his mind's eye, to seven: He felt selfish for thinking so much about them. Other Haitians arrived at the church for counseling. They had family who were missing, too. "See the secretary," he said over and over.

And then he would walk down a hallway and flick open his cellphone. He'd dial Lissa's number. Maybe one of the children got away and was running someplace to get help. "I had to think of what might be a possibility," he says. But nothing. "Then I figured that if the older children, Billy, Bella and Bello survived, they would take care of the others. I figured yes, if they survived, my family could survive. Then I began to think: 'How am I going to get back into Haiti?' "

At home on Wednesday night, he stared at pictures of his children. His eyes were so very tired. "I wondered how come I couldn't hear God. That made me think my family is dead -- or dying."

* * *

That first night Lissa and her children walked and walked, not knowing where they were going, just trying to stay alive. They passed bands of people on their knees praying, as though inside an invisible church. Brick rubble was everywhere. Then night fell and it was as if a dark blanket had been draped over everyone.

The twins were getting tired.

Lissa hugged her children. Some tough-looking youths were loitering in front of some crumbling houses, and for a little money they would dash in a house and steal something. It was risky and dangerous work, like playing Russian roulette with the brick walls. Lissa asked for a sheet. One sheet for a family of seven. Falling rock sounded like boulders, snapping them from sleep.

The next morning, they were surrounded by the acrid smell of dying. Lissa circled back to their family's collapsed home, lingering long enough inside to grab her bankbook: There was $20 in one account. She wished she had that $20 right now.

On Thursday, Lissa began to grow despondent. They found a little encampment. "Our belongings are few," she explained later. "We have our things in buckets and bags. There is no house in Haiti where we could go. We have no water to drink."

Famished and thirsty, the children wondered aloud whether their Papi was looking for them. Lissa was now worrying about the possibility of rain, of mud and mudslides and bricks falling on her children.

The flies that were buzzing seemed to grow larger by the minute. They were buzzing from dead body to dead body. From pool of blood to pool of blood. Then they began landing on the Saint-Hilaire children. Lissa fanned them away. The twins shrieked. Lissa spotted a woman holding a live rooster. Another woman plunged a knife into the rooster, killing it.

* * *

On Thursday morning, William heard from someone in Miami. "They told me that all of the houses in my neighborhood had fallen down." He didn't know what to believe. "There were a lot of rumors," he says.

Then he began thinking that people knew what had happened to his family and just didn't want to deliver the grim news. "You know how someone calls you and then don't really say anything? I thought they were calling because they knew I knew my family was dead but that I didn't want to talk about it."

He didn't know.

What he felt, he hated feeling: They could not survive something that had killed so many people. How would they stay connected to one another? At the same time, he hoped. He just knew that Billy, the oldest, would give his life to save any of the younger ones.

Members of the church began laying their hands on William, in little comforting motions throughout the day. He'd sit down and close his eyes for five minutes and suddenly wake up, imagining he had heard the voice of one of his children.

William was at the church late Friday when he heard a rumor from a relative in Orlando. Someone had seen one of his twins on the side of a road -- alone. He dismissed that because he knew one twin would never leave the other. "It had to be a rumor," he says.

* * *

Drained, unwashed and ill-clothed, the Saint-Hilaire family was now languishing under a blue tarp propped up with sticks, about three miles from their house in Port-au-Prince. The children worried that their mother had become delirious from drinking dirty water. She was complaining that she was feeling sick, that she might not make it. The family eventually found a prayer group and joined in. Then they scavenged for food, without much success. Early on Saturday morning, they walked past a house with four people visible in the living room. The roof started to fall in and Lissa tried to shield her children's eyes. The collapse looked lethal. The twins began to cry. They quickened their pace, to where they still did not know. Lissa hated that her children had to walk in cheap sandals.

They reached a small field and the children dozed off, their heads rolling about like plums. Death now had a ghostly glow: ashen bodies lying on the ground. Other bodies like twisted up mannequins. Men and women on foot moving brick, looking at a human face here, a human face there, then scurrying off, the clock of death ticking faster than their feet could move and their tired hands could lift another piece of brick.

The sky was churning as Lissa sat watch over her sleeping children.

* * *

William was in his living room on Saturday morning when his niece, Nephtali Saint-Hilaire, called from Orlando. "She told me she talked to someone in Port-au-Prince who saw my family and that they are alive. Still, I said, 'I can't trust this rumor! How can you be sure?' Then we lost phone contact."

Then an hour or so later, Rosemary Mesidor, a friend in Florida, called. She told him that his family was alive.

"How do you know?" he snapped.

She told him she had tracked someone down who recognized Lissa and could arrange a phone call.

William was standing when his cellphone rang.

It was Rosemary.

"Hold on for me, William," she screamed. "Just hold on."

And then the voice of the woman he had married at a small church in Port-au-Prince in 1992 and had given birth to their six children came on the line.

"William," she said, "me and the children are alive."

"Thank God!" he said. "Thank God!" He started pacing rapidly. He kept talking over his wife. Later, he would regret not hearing everything.

Lissa told him they have no food or water. She told him their house is ruined and she has no money.

She told him she loved him.

He told her he loved her.

During the days that followed, William Saint-Hilaire would go from being grateful that his family had miraculously survived the earthquake, to fearful that they will now die of hunger. In a second, brief phone call before the line went dead, Lissa would tell him that the children are growing steadily weaker. His 8-year-old daughter Belline would say "Daddy, the ground won't stop shaking." But on Saturday after saying goodbye to his wife, Saint-Hilaire listened to the voice of his 15-year-old daughter Bella on the phone.

"Papi," she asked, "how are you?"

And when his oldest daughter -- who had thus far endured unimaginable horror, who was now without food and water and had seen bodies heaped like stacks of laundry -- showed concern for her father and his well-being, Saint-Hilaire balled his hand up and put it in his mouth to stifle the sobs of relief.

Labbe-DeBose reported from Port-au-Prince. Haygood reported from Washington.

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