CBS producer Jeff Goldman recalls two weeks on the ground in earthquake-ravaged Port-au-Prince
Jan 12, 2010 – The day that changed the lives of millions of Haitians.
I had just returned from Wilmington, Delaware aboard Air Force One with President Obama. The president and various members of his Cabinet along with members of Congress had traveled to attend a funeral service for Vice President Biden's mother. Within an hour of our return, hundreds of thousands of others would soon be mourned. The earthquake struck Port-au-Prince Haiti just before 5:00 p.m.
No one knew just how extensive the damage in Haiti was but this was a powerful earthquake. The first thing that came to mind at our CBS bureau was our colleague Frank Thorpe and his wife. Frank had just quit CBS a couple of weeks earlier to join his wife, who worked with an aid organization in Haiti, the poorest country in the western hemisphere. We soon learned his wife was trapped in a collapsed building. She communicated for help with her cell phone, but Frank was no where to be found. She was rescued hours later and Frank was located in another part of Haiti where he was safe. They were the lucky ones.
Reports started filtering in about tremendous loss of life. It was an unimaginable crisis in a country that long suffered years of poverty, neglect, and corruption. I had been there before when Baby Doc Duvalier and his wife fled the country after years of crippling rule by the DuValier family. Chaos descended on the country then ,forcing US troops to be rushed in to stabilize the country. Now the U.S., along with the world community, would have to come to the rescue again for this most cruel of natural disasters.
My bosses at CBS asked me if I would volunteer to go. We were not sure how I would get there. Within an hour I was racing out the door to the Fairfax County Virginia Search and Rescue headquarters. The search team from there is one of the best in the world for earthquake disasters. They have been sent before to far-flung places like China, Taiwan, Turkey, Italy and Mexico to search for survivors in the immediate aftermath of strong quakes. When I arrived at the fire station in Virginia, dozens of men and women with search dogs at their side, were busy packing their equipment and preparing to launch their mission. They travel under the auspices of the U.S. government "AID" program. In this case, the government was desperately trying to find transport to Haiti. I was told we would either have to travel to Dover Air Force base in Delaware for a military transport to Haiti, or we would travel by a civilian charter aircraft from nearby Dulles airport.
The search and rescue team was allowing CBS to accompany them on the mission. We were the only journalists to go along. We waited 13 hours through the night until word came we had transportation. I never slept, thinking we could be leaving at any moment. I soon got to know the brave men and women of this very specialized group as we sat all night keeping each other awake. Little did I know that I would remain awake literally for 72 hours, never closing my eyes. Adrenaline kicked in and somehow I kept my wits about me.
When we left the airport, we set up our base camp on the ground of the American Embassy, outside of the capital. It was a vast campus of buildings that had withstood the earthquake. Many Haitian-Americans desperately stood outside seeking help. They had walked for miles. Some camped out on the lawns within the compound. Others were there to seek medical help. The lobby of the embassy was set up like a triage center. Patients were being treated by an embassy doctor and staff with limited facilities. But options were few and hospitals were overrun with the injured. These, of course, were the lucky ones that survived. Many others were missing or entombed in the rubble of concrete buildings around the city
An advance team from Fairfax county Virginia was sent out with their trained German shepherds to look for signs of life at various locations. Within an hour they came back to the embassy with a positive hit. We raced through the night to an area of Port-au-Prince called Delmas. This is halfway between downtown and the more affluent suburb of Petionville up the mountain. We were going to the collapsed United Nations headquarters building. Along the way, though, we passed literally thousands of people sleeping in the streets. There were no lights and the only way our trucks avoided running the people over was the cinderblocks surrounding the survivors sleeping in the streets. Small branches stuck out of the cinderblocks to indicate there were people there. What I didn't know until I looked closely was that mixed in with the survivors were the dead covered in white shrouds. The back drop - building after building collapsed like a layer of pancakes.
Seven hours later the lone survivor, a 33-year-old Estonian man was extricated from the rubble. Miraculously, he survived with very minor injuries and climbed the few last steps out of the rubble without being held by his rescuers. Those of us on the ground watching clapped and cheered for the man and his heroic rescuers. This was one of the few positive moments for me over the next 14 days.
Yet there was no hope for the 100 colleagues left behind in the rubble.
My cameraman and I hitched a ride in a pick up truck down the mountainside to get our video back to the satellite feed location. Along the way we saw many corpses lining the streets and chaos everywhere we looked. My colleague had never been to Haiti before. I told him if you took away the collapsed buildings and the bodies in the streets, nothing had changed since my last visit so many years ago. The earthquake just added to the misery already there for decades.
CBS was broadcasting from the site of a collapsed bank building on Rue Delmas. Moments before my arrival, Katie Couric arrived to broadcast the news from Haiti that night. I told her about the story of our rescue and we incorporated this into her report that night.
That evening we made our way back to our base camp. It was near the Port Au Prince airport. It was a one-story motel called "La Maison." We theorized it was normally a brothel or room-by-the-hour type of location. It had not been damaged and had a fence around it. We could secure it, as we did eventually, with armed guards with shotguns. Of course, we had food and water trucked in from the Dominican Republic in the coming days and needed protection from the desperate Haitians. I remember when the truck came with MREs (meals ready to eat). The Haitians saw us through the gate off-loading the food and water. That was a mistake. The crowd surged and tried to get in to our compound. I thought we would have to make a run for it. Later we covered the fence with blue tarps so that no one could peer in to see what we had.
Each day we covered several stories ranging from rescue operations to assistance operations to get food and water to the masses. I was also assigned to cover the visit of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who came down to Haiti for the day. In this case, it was my job to cover her movements for all five networks.
Her visit was limited to the airport, as it would have tied up too many important resources to show her around the city. She met with what was left of the Haitian government, along with the U.N. leadership in this operation. Of course she also met with U.S. military officials leading rescue efforts there. She held a news conference along with Haitian President Rene Preval. Her message to the Haitian people: "America was with the people of Haiti.".
Welcome words to Haitians very distrustful of their own government's abilities to do anything for the people, given their track record in even the best of times!
Afterwards, Clinton granted interviews to each network. The interviewers ranged from Andrea Mitchell of NBC, Kate Snow of ABC, Greta Van Susteren of Fox, Dr Sanjay Gupta of CNN and your' s truly from CBS. I had traveled with Clinton last summer to India and Thailand and she knows me. Of course, I don't think she was prepared to see me disheveled like this. The other correspondents traveled with her that morning from Washington and were clean and well dressed. I was filthy, with a beard and dirty clothing . My CBS baseball cap hid my greasy uncombed hair. Without access to running water I had not bathed during my entire time in Haiti. When she extended her hand to shake mine, I said, "Madam Secretary, I wouldn't recommend that." She laughed as she looked at me a bit closer.
CBS had a variety of correspondents pass through Haiti at this time. Katie Couric and Byron Pitts of "60 Minutes" along with Kelly Cobiella were among the first there. Later, Harry Smith of the "Early Show" was joined by correspondents Seth Doane and Bill Whitaker. All were super to work with and all were moved by what they saw along with the rest of us. At times like this, it is hard to separate your professional responsibilities from your personal feelings of compassion. We all did our best to cover the stories and make people at home understand the need for assistance. We also stepped back and did what we could to help people.
One incident left an indelible imprint in my mind. Our correspondent Seth Doane and his producer Chloe Arensberg had done a moving story involving a little boy named Wilson Benoit. He was found by our team and our British security guard Andrew Stephen wandering around while they were shooting a story.
While he sat with Wilson, a man from the United Nations World Food Program happened to appear nearby. Andrew approached the man asking for help to get some protection for this little 7-year-old.
The man a, a French national, agreed to take young Wilson to a special place that UNICEF had set up for children - a type of safe house to protect them and get them off of the increasingly mean streets of Port-au-Prince. I had not physically seen Wilson until this moment.
Raw emotions then hit me as I watched the child being turned over to the man from the United Nations.
Here Andrew, the 6'5" security man, held on to the emaciated body of Wilson. He bid him farewell. I watched from several yards away and my eyes welled up with tears.
I told Andrew how impressed I was by what he had done and the concern he showed for the little boy.
He told me he just had to do it, thinking of his own two children back home in the north of England.
Two weeks had passed and I never let my emotional guard down, but this small act of kindness made me reflect on so many things I had witnessed. This small act of kindness weighed heavily in my mind.
There would so many more Wilsons out there, symbolic of the population so devastated by this terrible earthquake. I thought about that for my remaining days in Haiti.
When it was my time to leave the country, I was faced with the task of helping to pay our drivers translators. They were very happy to have had a way to earn good money during this time of tragedy.
While the money was something they wanted, most begged me for a tent or a generator, or food and water. Those items were something that even cash could not buy at that moment. Their families were sleeping out in the streets, their homes destroyed and their stomachs empty. We did our best to help each and every one of them before we broke down our camp. One of our translators named William helped run a small orphanage. He came with a small truck that we loaded with medical supplies water and food.
Much to my surprise many of our Haitian staff came to me with small gifts of thanks. I had not expected this. They were small pieces of Haitian art. One was symbolic of a doorway, metal and wood on a board. Another was a painting of a little Haitian child eating a small piece of mango. Then there were small brightly painted piece of wood, one shaped like a boat. All were touching gestures from people wanting to be gracious even in these difficult circumstances.
I do have hope for the Haitian people. They are resilient. They have suffered for decades of hunger, natural disasters and corrupt governments. I'm not so sure that my fellow countrymen could endure the life that these Haitians have been dealt. It will surely be years before Haiti can be rebuilt.
I'm convinced, though, it will take the persistence and administration of the outside world to make it work.