Girl's rescue 15 days after quake offers a rare moment of joy in devastated Haiti

French rescuers pulled a teenage girl out of the rubble of Port-au-Prince's destroyed College St. Gerard on Wednesday, a miraculous rescue that occurred 15 days after an earthquake smashed the Caribbean capital. (Jan. 27)
By Dana Hedgpeth and Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, January 28, 2010

PORT-AU-PRINCE, HAITI -- Fifteen days after an earthquake devastated this nation, a teenage girl was rescued from the rubble of her house -- weak and thirsty -- on a hillside in the capital.

Hundreds of Haitians shouted with joy Wednesday as rescuers pulled Darline Etienne from a jumble of concrete and steel, wrapped her in a gold foil emergency blanket and hurried her into an ambulance. She said she had been in the shower when her house collapsed. A spokesman for the French team that rescued her said, "We think she's been in there since the quake," and a cousin said Darline had been "under the trash since January 12."

"It's a miracle," said Christopher Paul Smith, a British police chaplain who offered the girl a wooden cross on a chain. When she was too weak to take it, he wrapped it around her hand.

"She's breathing pretty weakly. She's very dehydrated, but she will be fine," said Christopher Renou, one of the French rescuers. "We're very optimistic that she will be fine."

It was the second remarkable rescue in the Haitian capital in the past 24 hours and may have marked one of the longest stretches of survival on record in any natural disaster. In a nation that has counted its dead by the tens of thousands, Darline's survival provided a rare moment of pure happiness.

The rescue of the girl -- thought to be 16 or 17 -- came after more than 3 1/2 hours of digging. It began when a group of young men were picking their way along the hillside and heard a voice.

"I said, 'Is there someone here?' " Roosevelt Luc recalled.

"Yes," Darline said. "I am alive."

It was unclear how Darline managed to survive. Staying alive 15 days without food is possible but without water is unlikely.

Researchers have documented credible reports of post-disaster survival of up to 14 days. But "no live finds were documented in any earthquake after 14 days had elapsed," Anthony G. Macintyre, an emergency medicine physician at George Washington University, and his co-authors wrote in a medical journal after a 2006 study.

Luc and three friends began chopping at the collapsed house about 2:15 p.m. Wednesday, grabbing tools -- a sledgehammer, a pickax, a saw, a pail -- that were handed to them by people living nearby.

Only a few passersby watched at first as the men dug a trench 4 feet deep and about 2 1/2 feet wide. They sawed and pulled at steel bars of reinforced concrete.

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