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Story Publication logo January 13, 2020

‘Even If You Are Missing a Foot, Missing a Hand, You Must Live,’ Says Haiti Quake Survivor

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A group of children checks out visitors at the Teren Toto camp in Haiti. Image by Jose A. Iglesias. Haiti, 2019.
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On Jan. 12, 2010, Haiti suffered its most devastating disaster. More than 300,000 souls were lost, 1...

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Ginette Sainfort, 60, spent six days under the rubble after Haiti’s Jan. 12, 2010, earthquake. She underwent several surgeries and is grateful to be alive. Image by Jose A. Iglesias. Haiti, 2019.
Ginette Sainfort, 60, spent six days under the rubble after Haiti’s Jan. 12, 2010, earthquake. She underwent several surgeries and is grateful to be alive. Image by Jose A. Iglesias. Haiti, 2019.

PORT-AU-PRINCE

Wreaths will be laid at the graves of the dead. The names of the missing will be spoken. And on Sunday, when Haiti commemorates the 10th anniversary of the worst natural disaster in its history, Ginette Sainfort will do what she has done every January 12 since the earth moved that day.

She will walk into a church and give thanks.

Sainfort, who turned 60 last month, has much to be thankful for. For six days after the earthquake, she survived underneath a mountain of concrete after the three-story bank building in downtown Port-au-Prince where she worked collapsed, burying her, an assistant bank director and two security guards in the underground parking garage.

None made it out alive except Sainfort.

“God left these two little fingers for me, I always say, so I can do my rosary and so I can write,” Sainfort said, showing her thumb and index finger on her right hand, which is missing its middle finger. In all, she lost four fingers as a result of her ordeal.

She was rescued thanks to her determined husband, Roger, and the head of Haiti’s National Equipment Center, Jude Célestin, who pulled her out of the rubble, after using an excavator to remove slabs of concrete. A Los Angeles County urban search and rescue team later stepped in and hooked Sainfort up to an IV and examined her.

“Mr. Célestin always said, ‘Madame Sainfort, it’s your God who got you out because I couldn’t have had that power,’ ” she said.

Sainfort’s story is both a testament to faith and a reminder of Haitian resilience in the face of a difficult decade of unkept promises and political and economic aftershocks that have made it difficult for many to see beyond the setbacks, and failure of the recovery.

Hers is also a story about the people who could have perished but didn’t and are using their second chance to embrace life despite the current crisis and political climate.

Ginette Sainfort, 60, spent six days under the rubble after Haiti’s Jan. 12, 2010, earthquake. She underwent several surgeries and is grateful to be alive. Image by Jose A. Iglesias. Haiti, 2019.
Ginette Sainfort, 60, spent six days under the rubble after Haiti’s Jan. 12, 2010, earthquake. She underwent several surgeries and is grateful to be alive. Image by Jose A. Iglesias. Haiti, 2019.

“We don’t have anything to complain about,” she said of the 1.5 million Haitians who were injured during the quake but survived. “Even if you are missing a foot, missing a hand, you must live. We are here, we have to live.”

She regards the day of the quake as her rebirth.

“January 12 is a celebration for me,” she said. “It is a gift that God has given me that I am here, that I can talk.”

'A Profound Reflection'

For months, not much thought had been given to the anniversary date. Haiti has been in the throes of a political and economic crisis that has paralyzed the country for months, prevented the holding of legislative and municipal elections and made most Haitians more concerned about where their next meal was coming from than about commemorating.

Port-au-Prince Archbishop Max Leroy Mesidor said his hope for Sunday is that Haitians will do more than the customary wreath-laying and speeches at Titanyen, the barren mountaintop where most of the 316,000 who died in the quake are buried in mass graves.

“I don’t think it’s enough for the 12th,” he said. “These gestures need to be accompanied by a reflection, a serious, profound reflection.”

Haiti, he said, needs to weigh some serious questions: Why were there so many deaths? Why was there $7.9 billion in destruction? What has the country done during the past 10 years to prevent the same destruction from happening again?

“Ten years later, we need to think about where we’re going,” he said. “What kind of country do we want to rebuild? Where do we want to go? Do we always have to be in the same place all the time?” he said. “What kind of young [generation of] Haitians do we want to shape?”

'Faith and Pumpkin Soup'

A director at a bank when the 7.0 magnitude temblor struck, Sainfort had been outside passing out calendars and had just stepped inside to wait for her husband when she heard an unfamiliar noise.

The rumble was the building shaking, which Haitians would later describe as sounding like “goudou goudou,” the name they used for the word “earthquake” because none existed in the Creole vocabulary until then.

“I saw that my feet were not able to stand still [and] I tried to hold on,” she said. “I saw three stories fall on me.”

Earlier in the day, Sainfort had treated her staff and some of the bank’s other employees to pumpkin soup, the traditional Haitian meal that’s usually served on Jan. 1 to celebrate Haiti’s 1804 independence from France.

Lying underneath the rubble, she thought about the soup.

“I would say this little phrase that brought me a sweet moment,” she said. “Jesus, you spent three days [on the cross]. You gave bread and wine before you died. Me, I am Haitian. I give pumpkin soup.”

She never believed she would die, she said. Her faith was that strong.

Out-of-Body Experience

People who have come close to death often talk about having an out-of-body experience where they describe seeing dark tunnels, bright lights and having spiritual sensations and conversations with the dead.

Sainfort said she had similar experiences, though she called them visions.

Her first vision came as she prayed those first few moments. Her hand was hurting and blood was pouring from her head. Then a woman appeared to her.

Sainfort asked for help in getting her hands out from underneath a beam of concrete. “She told me, ‘Madame, I’m giving you some anesthesia.’ She gave it to me, really. I didn’t feel the pain anymore.”

Outside on Rue Pavée, Roger Sainfort spent the first few hours trying to dig through the debris to get to his wife. He kept vigil over the site, sleeping in the middle of the street.

At one point, Ginette Sainfort heard the commotion outside. A security guard next to her looked like he would make it out before she did.

“I told him, ‘Tell my husband I am still alive,’ ” she said.

The man died before he could relay the message.

Outside, people were dying, and the smell of death pierced the air. Roger Sainfort was determined, he said, that his wife would not suffer the same fate.

“If I had given up, she wouldn’t be here,” he said.

Célestin, whose crew of mostly female heavy-equipment operators had transformed from road builders to first responders overnight, said he still doesn’t know what led him to go downtown the day of Sainfort’s rescue.

Rue Pavée and nearby Grand Rue had essentially become ground zero in the disaster and he had a National Equipment Center crew doing search and recovery nearby at the government-owned telephone company.

He spotted Roger Sainfort, he said, distraught amid mountains of fallen concrete along the street. He was desperately looking for anyone who could help him get his wife out.

Célestin asked Sainfort if his wife was still alive. He said “yes,” though they both acknowledge that Roger Sainfort had no proof.

“After six, almost seven days?” Célestin said. “She’s dead.”

Sainfort replied: “My wife is there. If she isn’t there, there isn’t a God, God doesn’t really exist.”

Célestin, still not believing someone could survive that long, told Sainfort he would personally lead the rescue effort.

But he warned, “Be prepared to receive your wife’s corpse.”

“No, I won’t,” Sainfort replied. “My wife is alive.”

Darkness, Then a Bright Light

All the circumstances were against Ginette Sainfort’s survival. She was on the bottom floor of the building, and the beam that had fallen on her hand could have caused the rest of the structure to collapse during the rescue.

And when her husband told Célestin where she was, Roger Sainfort’s estimate was off by one building because there was rubble everywhere, Célestin said, which meant that an excavator was unwittingly running over the site where Sainfort was buried.

“He passed the [excavator] over me four times,” she said. “After the fourth passage my husband told him, ‘Stop. I’m going to go check and see whether or not my wife is there because I know she’s alive.’ ”

Roger Sainfort (in striped shirt) checks on his wife, Ginette Sainfort, while members of the Los Angeles County Fire Department Search and Rescue Team give her an IV following her rescue from the parking lot of a collapsed three-story bank. She spent nearly a week buried in rubble. Image by Petty Officer 2nd Class Justin S / U.S. Navy. Haiti, 2010.
Roger Sainfort (in striped shirt) checks on his wife, Ginette Sainfort, while members of the Los Angeles County Fire Department Search and Rescue Team give her an IV following her rescue from the parking lot of a collapsed three-story bank. She spent nearly a week buried in rubble. Image by Petty Officer 2nd Class Justin S / U.S. Navy. Haiti, 2010.

Underneath, Sainfort was in another world. After the third day, she had decided to stop talking to preserve the little energy she had left. It was then she had a second vision, which she calls “the most beautiful experience in my life.”

In the vision, Sainfort made three stops. The first was a dark place where everyone was bending down. The second was green and the most beautiful place she had seen.

“I can’t say it was heaven, I don’t have a name for it. ... I felt like I could stay.” There she encountered several people, some of whom passed on wisdom on how she should live her life. At the third stop she saw a light illuminating an exit route. A voice, she said, told her, “You are going to go straight.”

Back on the street, Roger Sainfort and Célestin spotted the top of Ginette’s hair as they looked inside a small hole in the rubble where she was trapped.

'I Came out Like a Princess'

“Ginette, Ginette, I know that you’re alive. You have to answer,” she heard her husband say.

“I said, ‘Yes, yes I am alive,’ ” she said. But Sainfort didn’t just talk.

“She started singing,” said Roger Sainfort.

Ever since she found herself under the earth, Ginette Sainfort had started planning her reentry into the world of the living. She chose the powerful Christian French hymn “Si la mer se déchaîne,” that speaks to not being afraid of death.

As rescuers finished pulling her out of the dark hole, Sainfort began to sing in French: “Si la mer se déchaîne/ Si le vent souffle fort/ Si la barque t’entraîne/ N’aie pas peur de la mort.”

“If the sea is unleashed/ If the wind blows hard/ If the boat leads you/ Do not be afraid of death.”

By now, a crowd had gathered. As they heard Sainfort’s voice, they too began to join in the chorus in French: “Il n’a pas dit que tu coulerais/ Il n’a pas dit que tu sombrerais/ Il a dit Allons sur l’autre bord.”

“He did not say you will sink/ He did not say you will sink/ He said ‘Let’s go on the other side.’ ”

“She is a faith builder,” said Célestin. “Madame Sainfort is the kind of person who makes you believe in God because of her faith.”

Roger Sainfort said January 12 is not an ordinary day for him.

“January 12 transformed me,” Roger Sainfort said. “I was not someone who cried but now I am sensitive to a lot of things. I am moved by a lot of things.”

After initially being treated at an Israeli tent hospital, a dispensary and Nos Petits Frères et Soeurs Hospital in Port-au-Prince — where doctors feared she would lose her left hand — Ginette Sainfort crossed over into the Dominican Republic and then flew to Miami. She arrived at Jackson Memorial Hospital, where doctors inserted metal rods in her leg.

She had been told it would take two years before she regained movement in her left hand.

“I told the doctor, ‘I am someone who believes in God,’ and the next day I was moving my hand,” she said.

Where some see a disabled person, Sainfort sees herself as blessed.

“I can go to some places, and it’s this hand that allows me to get through. These two legs that get me through,” she said.

Sainfort’s life is in many ways like everyone else’s in Haiti. Every day requires a series of gymnastics to get from home to work and back again amid increasing violence, the return of kidnappings and a worsening economy. But there is one thing, she doesn’t do: complain.

“I never give sadness a chance to take over my heart,” she said. “I don’t have a reason to complain.

“For me, January 12 was an experience, first of all, to see the greatness of God. I believe in God, I believe in the existence of angels,” she said. “God sent angels to accompany me during all six days that I spent.”

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