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01.14.11

Haiti Earthquake Anniversary: Finding a Skull in the Rubble

One year after the devastating earthquake in Haiti, one man is still trying to rebuild. But instead of finding bricks and metal in the rubble, he found his 11-year-old neighbor's remains. Lisa Armstrong reports from Port au Prince.

Damas Negrial started the day Wednesday clearing rubble. He is trying to rebuild his house in Fort National, a hilltop neighborhood in Port au Prince that was almost completely destroyed by the earthquake last January, and was salvaging bricks from the neighboring plot. As he dug, he felt something far smoother than the jagged, broken bricks and twisted metal beneath his fingers. It was the skull of his neighbor, 11-year-old Stephanie, who, with her three siblings had been entombed when their home fell exactly a year before.

Wednesday, at Fort National, Negrial gathered with dozens of neighbors for a moment of silence at 4:53 p.m., the exact time that the earthquake began. Hundreds of silver balloons floated in the air, so high that they looked like stars in the afternoon sky. But the moment of silence never happened; a drunkard started arguing with people and caused a small scuffle.

 

Negrial walked the precipitous path, down a steep hill littered with rubble and glass, to his house. He uncovered the girl's skull, which he had wrapped in an old T-shirt and tucked it into the rubble.

Stephanie's mother has moved away, and so Negrial says he will either burn the bones, as he does not have money to properly bury them, or give them to the people he says sometimes come around to collect bones for research.

"It did not really affect me too much, finding these bones…We suffered through the smell of these bodies for months, and we have suffered through so much else, so we are used to it."

"It did not really affect me too much, finding these bones," says Negrial. "We have to be resilient. We suffered through the smell of these bodies for months, and we have suffered through so much else, so we are used to it."

Negrial, 36, also spent last January 12 digging through rubble. His sister Marie Michele and her three children had been living on the second floor of a three-story building, and were trapped when it collapsed. Negrial was sure that they had been killed.

"When my mother came, I told her, 'We have lost everyone,'" says Negrial, "but someone said that since we are a family who always pray, we are servants of God, my sister and her family must have survived."

Marie Michele, 26, was making spaghetti for dinner the afternoon of the earthquake. Her children, Starline, 6, Lysondya, 11, and Michela, 18 months, were watching television. When Marie Michele walked over to change the channel, she felt the ground shake.

"My children did not understand what was happening, and I was just calling, 'Jesus, Jesus,'" says Marie Michele. "Then I saw the wall falling in front and another falling behind. They fell together, like two mountains meeting."

Marie Michele passed out. When she woke up, she felt that her lips were cut and bleeding. She had fallen on top of Michela, who was trapped in a small space, wriggling, trying to free herself from under her mother. Lysondya was next to Marie Michele, with her arm around her mother's neck. Neither could move because a wall had collapsed on top of them.

Marie Michele called for help, however, Lysondya asked her to stop, because each time her mother cried out, the rubble shifted slightly, and the shards of brick were cutting into her arm.

"Then, I asked Lysondya if she had seen or heard Starline, because the whole time, we had not heard anything from her. I said, if we don't hear anything from her soon, then we know she is dead," says Marie Michele.

At that moment, Starline cried out: "Mummy! Come help me. I need to go to the bathroom, and I'm thirsty!"

About an hour passed, and Marie Michele heard her brother and mother outside, crying, however, when she called out to them, her voice was lost in the rubble so that they could not hear her. For the next three hours, Marie Michele and her daughters lay beneath the debris. Negrial and the other neighbors had run up to the main road, because they were afraid that the aftershocks would send more buildings tumbling down.

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Marie Michele with her daughter Michela. (Credit: Andre Lambertson)

Marie Michele could not cry—"My eyes had no water," she says—and eventually, she and the girls were so exhausted, they could not even speak. It was the one thing that had sustained them, because at least as they spoke, they could each tell that the others were alive.

Marie Michele was certain that they were going to die. A live wire had connected with the metal bars of the house, and the electric shock was burning Lysondya's leg. Lysondya made a pact with her mother: "If I die first, you pray for me, and if you die first, I'll pray for you," she said.

And then Marie Michele, who is deeply religious, says she heard a voice. "It was a real voice, not the voice of the neighbors or my family, but a voice from somewhere else telling me that we would live."

"I said, 'Lysondya, let us gather our strength and make one last call. If they don't come, then we are going to die,'" says Marie Michele.

When the two cried out, a pastor who lived on the floor above them and had come looking for survivors heard. He, Negrial, and neighbors dug for two hours, in the pitch dark, to free Marie Michele and the girls.

"When I came out, at first I felt good, I said thanks to God. But then I realized that my body had collapsed everywhere. It was 11, and the blood all over my body was making me cold. I couldn't feel my legs," says Marie Michele.

The next day, Marie Michele's boyfriend drove Lysondya and Starline to Santo Domingo for medical treatment. Lysondya's right cheek had been completely sliced through by a sharp piece of brick, and Starline's legs had been badly damaged.

Marie Michele stayed behind with the baby, who, except for some swelling, was fine. But when the cuts all over Marie Michele's body did not heal, Negrial decided to take her to Santo Domingo as well, a week later.

Marie Michele does not have a passport, and so they knew that she would likely be turned back at the Haiti-Dominican Republic border. However, Negrial was determined to get his sister to the hospital.

"I said, even if they kill me, I will make it through," he says.

As it turns out, the border guards were preoccupied with the many journalists trying to get through from the Dominican Republic to Haiti, and so they did not even stop Negrial and his sister.

But on this anniversary, Negrial and his family were focused less on the suffering and death that came when the world around them collapsed a year ago, and more on the things they do have.

"Today, I feel great," says Marie Michele. "I went to the church to say thanks to God, because I am alive."

Lisa Armstrong is reporting from Haiti for The Pulitzer Center