Major aftershock brings panicked evacuation at hospital

Sgt. Willie Green, left, elevates the broken leg of an 8-year-old boy after he and other patients were moved out of the hospital buildings after the earthquake hit Port-au-prince Wednesday morning. Pfc. Anthony Invzitari, right, helps.


By MEGAN MCCLOSKEY | STARS AND STRIPES Published: January 21, 2010

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PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Wailing echoed around the hospital here after another earthquake hit Wednesday around 6 a.m, sending doctors and relatives of the injured into a panic to get patients out of the shaking buildings and onto the street.

They frantically carried patients out on hospital beds, in rolling chairs and in their arms, as the U.S. military tried to maintain some semblance of order in the moments following the 5.9-magnitude temblor, the strongest of the dozens of aftershocks to hit in the last week.

The soldiers of Company C, 1st Battalion, 325th Airborne Infantry Regiment, who are tasked with securing the hospital, jumped in to help, donning blue latex gloves, carrying patients and sending their medics to attend to patients.

As a doctor used a bullhorn to tell the patients what was happening, soldiers, two on each end of the hospital beds, started spreading the patients out into a line so doctors could get to them. Others ran into the building to carry out supplies.

In the early morning light, many patients were sitting forlorn on pieces of cardboard. Some started swaying and singing. Others wore the blank expression of shock and resignation. Two men got into a shoving match. And off to the opposite side, one body laid on a mattress covered in a yellow blanket.

Outside the pediatric ward, parents were sitting on the ground holding their quiet, injured children, many of whom had bandages wrapped around their heads or covering the remaining part of an amputated limb.

At the time of the quake, at least three women were in labor. In the middle of a crush of patients, an aid worker rushed to get masks on the doctor and nurses as one woman delivered on a hospital bed right outside the door of the building. Then the medical crew ran to another woman.

“This is a breech baby! I can’t deliver a breech baby on this bed!” a doctor shouted with frantic emotion cracking her words as a nurse hurriedly tied a new blue gown around her.

There were calls for supplies: “I need two pieces of rope. And scissors!”

“I’ve got scissors,” an aid worker with a flashlight taped to his ball cap responded, running over to the bed where nurses were trying to better position the pregnant woman for a difficult delivery.

They turned to the Army, pleading with them to get an obstetrician to the site. A soldier ran off to ask the captain.

Before the quake, the hospital crews had been working largely in the dark throughout the night. Vanessa McAlmon, a nurse from New York, said she was dressing a large leg wound when the tremor happened.

“The building started to shake and the residents panicked,” she said. “Family members started to cut, cut people out of their tractions and carry them out of the building.”

Staff Sgt. Julio Escareno was securing a condemned building when the quake hit.

“I was pointing out the point you can’t go past when it started shaking and we started running,” he said.

Company C’s medics started tending to patients, fighting through the language barrier, as family members standing over the hospital beds waved away the flies.

An 8-year-old boy with a broken leg was crying when Sgt. Willie Green went over to see if he could help. With Pfc. Anthony Inzitari comforting the boy, Green inspected the leg. He ran to go find something — anything — to splint the leg.

Inzitari sighed and said softly: “This is horrible.”

Green had no luck with a splint but was able to find something to elevate the injured leg, and through a translator the young boy said that made him feel better.

A relative calm started to fall over the patients as some semblance of order was restored. But returning to the hospital was going to be a challenge.

“Every time they feel an aftershock they do not want to go back in,” McAlmon, the New York nurse, said. “They’re scared. You know how long it’s going to take us to get them to go back inside?”

Soldiers help carry a patient shortly after the earthquake hit Port-au-Prince Wednesday morning. Patients had to be evacuated from the buildings and then lined up in a manner so doctors could attend to them.