Patrick O'Malley, 72, of River Falls, Wisconsin returned home Jan. 15 after surviving Haiti's Jan. 12 earthquake. O'Malley was in a taxi cab en route to his hotel in Port-au-Prince, Haiti when the earthquake hit; causing the airport control tower behind him to collapse in a cloud of dust. A retired American Airlines pilot, O’Malley has been visiting Haiti since 1992 and has helped raise money to build a village outside Port-au-Prince.
He arrived in Haiti at 4 p.m. Jan. 12 to avoid paying a fine on a vehicle, and the earthquake struck at 4:53 p.m.; the epicenter was less than two miles from where O'Malley was standing.
"It felt like the wheels were coming off the pickup (truck)," said O'Malley. "I thought it was an airplane crash or a riot."
O’Malley said the devastation and loss of life he witnessed over the next two days was unimaginable. As he made his way on foot to his hotel from where his taxi stopped, O’Malley said thousands of Haitians were suddenly in the street amongst the rubble. As he walked, he accidentally stepped on the body of a small boy buried underneath a collapsed building.
“I have never seen so many people crying at once in all my life, just thousands of people crying,” said O’Malley.
With two of the most well-known hotels in Port-au-Prince, The Montana and the St. Christopher, lying in rubble, O’Malley slept by the pool of the Coconut Villa Inn on Jan. 12. He estimated there were over a dozen aftershocks that night as he attempted to sleep outside among 70 other hotel guests in case the building collapsed. He saw other people on mattresses in the street that night.
"It's 15-20 times worse than what you're seeing on television," said O'Malley. "The pain and suffering that is going on there right now is beyond comprehension."
On Jan. 13, O’Malley reached the U.S. Embassy in Port-au-Prince, and was able to send a message back to his family. He spent the night sleeping outside the U.S. Embassy after a major aftershock. The next day, O’Malley was waiting with a group of Americans at the airport in Port-au-Prince to be flown to Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic.
After several hours, O'Malley found an American Airlines flight from Puerto Rico that was delivering supplies and convinced the crew to let him on board. With no documentation and no ticket, he arrived in Puerto Rico and found a flight to Chicago. He told the border guards he had to call his wife to tell her he was alive.
“There’s a tremendous amount of praying going on, people just standing in the street just praying,” said O’Malley. “They are a very prayerful people anyway, they pray a lot.”
O’Malley described the Haitians as calm and sharing with a tremendous sense of humor. He saw many people sleeping in parks or in the street, sharing what they had with each other. He also said the devastation was horrific, and remembered hearing people yelling from under the rubble trying to get out. O'Malley said when he left there was no readily available food and water, no one could travel and people were becoming hungry.
O’Malley travels to Haiti nearly four times a year with friend Curt Larson from Ezekiel Lutheran Church, River Falls. The Jan. 12 trip was the first time Larson did not go, thinking O'Malley would not need his help. With the aid of five River Falls churches, the two friends have raised enough money to build 25 homes and a school in the town of Ganthier, 20 miles east of Port-au-Prince.
Larson said he had called their close friend Fr. Emmanuel Sainteliat nearly 50 times since the earthquake, but has not heard from him and many other friends. Catholic Relief Services has already donated five million dollars to aid the efforts in Haiti. The Diocese of Superior will take a second collection the weekend of Jan. 23.
Printed with permission from The Catholic Herald, newspaper for the Diocese of Superior.