Suddenly I could hear a rumbling sound. I imagined a large truck driving just outside the building. The noise was confusing. It was everywhere and growing. Our conversation came to a halt.
Instantaneously the rumbling sound built up with immense power … The floor slid back and forth with incredible force, throwing me to my hands and knees. The building shook violently, doors swung wildly, and chairs fell over. The ground dropped and rebounded, dropped and rebounded. Fear charged through my body. I may die. And there’s nothing I can do to stop it.
That’s an excerpt from Owen Spears’ book, Hour Four: Surviving the Earthquake in Haiti, self-published and now available on Amazon. Ten years ago, when he was 17, Spears went to Haiti along with a group of other Mount Sentinel Secondary School students on a humanitarian project.
The massive earthquake of 2010 hit only four hours after they arrived and it was six days before they were airlifted out of the country.
Planting my hands on the floor, fully aware of my exposed head if the roof fell, I half crawled, half scrambled as fast as I could in the direction of the doorway. My uncoordinated crawl wasn’t stable. I swayed with the ground below me.
As I neared, the building shifted again, jerking me with it. My mouth hit the wall. I reacted, covering my head with my hands, but I needed to keep my elbows on the ground for stability.
Spears has been trying to write a book about the event for years, but says some parts were too emotionally difficult, until recently.
“I had a fight and struggle to write it all down,” he told the Star. “I wanted to do the easy stuff, like when we first arrived: look how cool that is, that woman is balancing a bowl of fruit on her head. Writing about when the earthquake hit was very difficult, with a decent amount of tears, even remembering things I did not remember right away, realizing there were some things I had blocked out. Trying to piece it together bit by bit.”
Spears grew up with several disabilities. Cerebral palsy affects his reaction time and his balance, and he has a slight limp on his right side. He also has weak lung function and hearing loss in both ears. Keeping his balance in regular life can be hard. But during an earthquake?
Panting, I stood at the top of the staircase, alone. I looked at the challenge that lay before me. The stairs with no railing. Shit. I had never been able to walk down stairs without the risk of losing my balance. If the earth shakes as I’m going down, I’m screwed. But there’s no other way off the second floor. I have to do it. I hesitated, scared of what could happen, of what had happened. I leaned into the wall for support, taking the first step.
Out in the yard of the compound where they were staying, with everyone accounted for, the group discovered only one injury: a chaperone had what appeared to be broken ribs.
They crammed into a van and drove through devastation to a medical clinic where all the supplies were buried in rubble, but there was an open field, the best place to be in a quake. They stayed in the field for the day and all night, local residents flocking there too, riding out many aftershocks.
An estimated three million people were affected by the quake. Death toll estimates range from 100,000 to about 160,000.
These innocent Canadian high school kids, suddenly dropped into a foreign and crumbling landscape — what were they thinking and feeling?
“There was shock, there was panic,” Spears said. “Everyone was in a different state. We were all young and new to this country, so we were going to wait for someone to tell us what to do. No one said ‘I’ll just take things into my own hands.’ The mindset was we didn’t know what to do.”
Next morning they walked back to their compound through streetscapes of wrecked buildings and suffering people.
“It was very intense, seeing what the aftershocks were capable of. We saw a lot of hopelessness and a lot of people sitting around doing nothing because of shock, unsure of how to proceed because of the fear of aftershocks.”
Back at the compound they waited around for instructions. They wanted to help so they tried clearing some of the roads of rubble. They had a generator and a stove and ate mostly rice and pasta.
For Spears it was a family experience. His twin brother Skye was on the trip, as was his mother Cathy Spears as a chaperone.
“At first we thought that was lame – who wants their mom on a school trip, you know? We knew she was kinda cool and stuff, but we thought, let us have this to ourselves. But we were super grateful she was there with us. But back home that meant our family had more people to worry about. My sister was 12 at the time and she was super afraid, super scared for us, same with my dad.”
For four days the travellers’ Slocan Valley families had been watching the news of the earthquake with no word about their kids. Then the group found an internet connection and emailed home to say they were OK.
Having no idea how long they would be in Haiti, the students decided to help. They bought $2,500 worth of rice – a pickup truck load of sacks – and started giving it away, with the help of some police officers.
“The word got out, and people came with pots and pans or just stuffing it into their pockets or cupping their T-shirt or using their hats. We would give a family two scoops. Mothers cried and begged for more but there would be 50 people behind them in line. We bought that much rice but it still did not do that much. People were still coming, running down the road, small children with a pot in their hands, five years old, their mother sent them, running as fast as they could.”
Spears and his friends couldn’t keep up, so they gave the last of their rice to a nearby orphanage and school.
Meanwhile whenever a helicopter flew overhead, they thought it was for them, and they were disappointed many times for several days.
“Some of our group would be yelling and dancing around: ‘We’re here, we’re here!’”
Spears said he looked at the Haitian people around him and realized there was no rescue for them, no leaving. He said he’s held that perception in his mind to this day.
“I am nervous about how the book will be [received] because I know it could be easy to look at it and be like, ‘This is just a privileged person living through an earthquake.’
“But the main purpose is not really to tell my story. It is to shine a light on the earthquake, hoping to talk more about the problems Haiti faced, more than just the problems I faced.”
On day six the group was notified of a rescue plan and they drove to an airport where they boarded military planes.
Spears will donate $5 of every book purchase to Haiti Arise, a community-based charity that develops leaders through education, extending as far as college. It also has a medical centre and orphanage.