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Faith Far Beneath the Surface

For 65 hours after the quake hit Haiti, this young American aid worker was trapped beneath a collapsed hotel. Here’s his survival story, one year later.

Daniel Woolley's faith helped him survive Haiti earthquake
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That Tuesday in January 2010, the Hotel Montana, with its white columns, layered terraces and open-air lobby, was a welcome sight after a long day on the streets near Port-au-Prince, Haiti.

With a videographer and an interpreter, I’d interviewed families living in the shacks clustered around the city, gathering video footage for Compassion International, a Christian nonprofit that helps disadvantaged children throughout the world.

It would go on a website showing our health-care and education programs for new mothers and their children. My notes had almost filled my small Moleskine journal. Now, after a long, bumpy ride back in our SUV, I looked forward to dinner and a good night’s sleep.

I’d only been working for Compassion International for 18 months. Normally I gathered stories created by others. This was my turn to be on the scene. My wife, Christy, worried about the trip. Because of her concerns, I downloaded a first-aid app for my iPhone, just in case.

“I’ll be fine,” I assured her. When I traveled I worried more about her and our boys, six-year-old Josh and three-year-old Nathan. Working for a nonprofit fit my values, but it was challenging for us financially.

Right now things were strained at home. I wished I could believe everything would work out for us, but I hadn’t been able to focus much on my faith lately, and was praying less often. I felt out of touch with God.

I slung my camera around my neck and climbed out of the SUV, waving goodbye. I glanced at my watch: 4:52. Walking through the lobby, I turned to catch one more glimpse of the city.

Boom! It sounded like a thunder­clap, but so close it shook the ground beneath my feet and I stumbled. The walls rippled like liquid–then exploded, sending splinters of concrete, wood and glass flying. There was a rumble I recognized from my boyhood in California: earthquake!

I bolted for the outdoor stairs. An archway swayed and collapsed. A wall crumbled and part of the ceiling fell, striking my head. Everything went black. Pulverized concrete and mortar clogged my throat. I gasped for air. More crashes. Screams, sounding far away.

I couldn’t see a thing. I felt my face. My glasses were gone. Had something gotten in my eyes and blinded me? Pain shot from my left leg and I realized my foot was pinned under debris. I tried to yank it free, but that made the pain worse. I touched the back of my head. Warm, sticky. Blood?

I’m alive, but for how long? Any second, an aftershock could level the pocket I was in. I dug through the debris and finally wrenched my leg free. Putting my weight on my good leg, I stood. Something bumped against my chest. My camera!

I fumbled for the power button. The display lit up–I wasn’t blind, I was buried. I pressed the shutter down halfway and used the red focus light to get my bearings. I looked around. No way to get out. But about 20 yards away was something that looked like a shower stall–the elevator.

With a deep breath, I dragged myself under a fallen beam. Glass and concrete tore at my legs. On the other side, I hopped on my right leg into the elevator. Not a moment too soon. Another rumble. Debris rained down. The pocket I’d been in disappeared in an avalanche of dust.

I pulled my pants leg up. My ankle was bloody and swol­len–something felt broken. A gash ran from my knee to just above my ankle, bleeding heavily. Now what? I didn’t want to die because of this wound.

I felt my pockets. My iPhone…the first-aid app! Thank God I had downloaded that. I pulled the phone out. No cell signal, but I could launch the app. I looked up what to do. Excessive bleeding: apply constant pressure. I unbuttoned my shirt and wrapped it tight around the gash.

I took off my right sock and folded it into a compress for my head. I couldn’t let myself pass out. What if I didn’t wake up? I set the alarm on my phone to alert me every 20 minutes. Would I ever see my family again?

I pictured Christy’s smile, the one that hooked me the day I met her. I could almost hear Josh asking when I’d be home to play with him, Nathan hugging me tightly before I left, shouting, “I love you as big as the whole wooorld!” They’d hear about the earthquake and fear the worst.

In the U.S., emergency workers would’ve been on the scene in minutes. But this was Haiti. All the people I’d met here had their own families to worry about. Who would know I was still alive?

If there was ever a time to reach out to God, it was now. Lord, I haven’t been in touch with you much lately, I prayed. Now I need you more than ever. I heard a faint sound. “Who’s there?” I shouted. “Jim,” a man answered. He and five others were trapped…several yards away, it sounded like.

I explained my surroundings as best I could. Jim did the same. We talked about why we were in Haiti. But as the minutes stretched into hours, the chatter died down.

A scraping noise. Was somebody digging us out? “Hello!” I yelled. “We’re down here!” The scraping stopped. “Hello?” It was a new voice, close. Not a rescuer. A hotel worker, trapped in the next elevator. I could hear the disappointment in Jim’s voice when I told him.

I knew we needed to hold onto hope. “Would you like to pray with me?” I called. “Yes, we would,” Jim answered. “Me too,” the hotel worker said. I said aloud what I’d been praying silently. “We ask you for a miracle, Lord. Rescue us.”

Jim and the others repeated my prayer. “Thank you for that,” Jim said.

Night came, and with it, silence. Again I thought about Christy and the kids. If I didn’t make it, I wanted them to know my last thoughts were of them. I shifted and felt something dig into my side. My journal was still in my pocket, along with a pen. I used the camera flash to find an empty page.

If found, please give to my wife, Christina. I love you. I have never stopped loving you or even slowed down. Don’t give up, Christy, no matter how hard it is. God will make a way. To the boys I wrote, Don’t be upset at God…. He always provides for his children, even in hard times. He will always take care of you.

I wrote my will and lists of practical things–email passwords, how to access our online banking. By the time I was done, I was exhausted. I put the notebook down. I turned my iPhone off to save the battery. I drifted off.

Rhythmic thumping above woke me. Helicopters! But all day we waited, and no rescuers came. I felt drained. No food and no water for more than 24 hours, and I needed a doctor, badly. I closed my eyes, not sure I’d ever open them again.

I saw Josh and Nathan. But they were taller, older. We were on a camping trip. Then, in a flash, I was at Josh’s high-school graduation. I lifted my camera, but when I looked through the viewfinder, the boys were already adults, posing with their own children.

“Dan!” a voice shouted. I jolted awake. Everything was dark. It took me a moment to realize where I was. I lit up my phone: 10 p.m. on Thursday. I was still in the elevator. Had my dream been wishful thinking? Or something else: a promise? Lord, I pleaded, please let me see my boys grow up.

“Dan!” It was Jim. “I’m here,” I shouted back. “We hear voices,” Jim said. I listened. People were talking in French. One of the survivors had made contact with a rescue team through a small hole, Jim told me.

I didn’t believe it until I heard the thrum of jackhammers and power saws. Around midnight, Jim shouted, “Dan! We’re free! You’re next!” This is it! I thought. An hour passed. Then two. Things got quiet again. I banged on the wall. No response.

My phone said 3:30 a.m. The rescuers were gone. They weren’t coming for me. I’m going to die here, and there’s nothing I can do.

Then a thought came into my mind. Worship me. I began singing “Great Is Thy Faithfulness.” I choked on the chorus, “Morning by morning, new mercies I see.” Next I sang “Be Still, My Soul.” After that, another song.

Old hymns. Praise songs. Songs I loved, reaching out to the only one who knew exactly where I was. I lost track of time. I felt God’s presence stronger than I ever had. I heard his voice whisper, Trust me, with everything.

Finally I did. I let it all go. The fear of dying here. The financial stress. The worries about Christy and the kids. I knew God would take care of them. Let your will be done, Lord, I prayed, whether that means rescue or death.

“Hello! Is anybody down there?”

“Yes!” I shouted. “I’m here!”

A few hours later, a team of rescuers from Fairfax, Virginia, came down the twisted elevator shaft and hoisted me and the hotel worker in the car next to mine to safety. I was flown to Miami and admitted to a hospital at 4:53 p.m., exactly three days after the earthquake. It felt more like three years.

Christy was there. She’d never looked more beautiful. We kissed, and all the pain faded. “I thought you were dead,” she said, trying to hold back the tears. “I thought I was too,” I whispered.

I would have been, if it weren’t for the things I had with me in that dark place–faith most of all. A faith that was more alive now than ever.

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