Vt. natives remember day Haiti broke apart
By SUSAN ALLEN STAFF WRITER | January 19,2010
MONTPELIER Montpelier native Alex Fischer was seated in a U.N. compound in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, last Tuesday when the world around him fell to pieces.
"There was a moment of uncertainty of what was happening," Fischer said during a telephone interview from New York, where he is part of the Earth Institute at Columbia University. In that first instant, he had no idea it was a devastating earthquake that has killed up to 200,000 people and left an estimated 1.5 million displaced or without basic necessities.
"We left the office immediately to get outside," Fischer said. "There was general chaos and confusion and uncertainty. It's all kind of a blur. We just evacuated the building."
He said his group first began searching for their colleagues, part of the UN and Earth Institute team working on a watershed project in a rural section of Haiti outside the capital city. The group was in Port-au-Prince last Tuesday for planning meetings and to pick up arriving team members.
"I don't know how it happened, but it was a miracle that everyone in our team was fine, without a scratch," Fischer said.
Outside the compound, he said, was a different outcome.
"Within five minutes you were hearing the buildings collapse and we could see a plume of dust rising over the city," Fischer said. "When we looked out over the city, it was as if the world had been turned over."
He said a doctor in their group set up a triage unit to help the injured, including children from a nearby school. Although he had no medical training, Fischer helped with that effort.
"We lost quite a few people that first night," he said. Eventually he was moved out to the evacuation area by the airport, where he continued to help at a clinic set up by Partners in Health until he was flown to New York on Thursday.
"I'm not a medic. I was basically managing things, getting food and supplies delivered, tending to people at a basic first aid level," he said. Although he wanted to remain, Fischer said untrained people were essentially getting in the way of trained relief workers.
"The Partners in Health team I was with the entire time were heroic and saved innumerable lives with their basic treatment of wounded," Fischer said in a follow-up e-mail. "Their two staff and several Columbia students, myself and other volunteers ran a basic clinic for 36 hours until the first wave of help arrived. They are a fantastic team."
He is continuing to help the Partners in Health efforts from here in the United States and is uncertain when if ever he will be able to return to Haiti. "My personal future is unknown," Fischer said.
Fischer's mother, Cheryl Fischer, said she knew her son was in Port-au-Prince last Tuesday, but only learned of the earthquake at about 6 p.m. when her husband, Monty, walked into the kitchen as she was cooking dinner.
"Monty walked in the door and said, 'Do you have the news on? There's been a major earthquake in Haiti. Where was Alex today?'" Fischer recalled. "I said Port-au-Prince. We both just looked at each other and said, 'Oh, God.'"
She said she felt "absolute horror and fear and disbelief."
"Then we focused on the positives and tried to imagine he was safe," she said of her son. Shortly after 9 p.m., the Fischers received word through his bosses at Columbia that Alex was OK.
"He was very lucky," Cheryl Fischer said.
Another lucky Vermonter was Elizabeth Sipple of Fayston, who has been living in Haiti off and on for five years, most recently working with a food program. Sipple's mother, Joan Rae, said Monday that her daughter's home was near the epicenter of the quake.
"The first night we heard (from her), it was Wednesday at 4:30. That was a terrible Tuesday and Wednesday," said Rae. "She was finally able to call. I had actually just stepped out, and my husband got it. It was a three-minute call before she was disconnected. We got an e-mail the next day. It was an amazing feeling."
Rae said her daughter had planned to return to the United States unless she found a way to make herself useful in the destruction. A stove-making operation she was involved in a 'rocket stove' that uses small amounts of junk wood and even pellets made of garbage to burn expects to move into Haiti, and Elizabeth Sipple will stay to work on that project.
"They want to get the factory going, get the stoves out because they would be very helpful for displaced people to cook on in the streets," said Rae. But, she added of her daughter's future, "It's so fluid, God only knows."
Another Montpelier native, Collin McCarthy, is hoping his trip to Haiti planned for March is still on. McCarthy is a student at the George Washington University School of Medicine in Washington, D.C., training to be a physician assistant. He was one of five PA students who, along with about 10 other medical and public health students, were chosen in December to spend their spring break week in Haiti about 40 miles outside Port-au-Prince providing routine health services.
"They set up makeshift clinics, and see over 200 to 300 people a day," he said of the annual project.
"It was really devastating to hear" about the earthquake, McCarthy said. "Knowing the history of Haiti and knowing how impoverished they are, they are going to need all the help they can get."
McCarthy is raising $2,000, along with each of the other students going on the trip, to help pay for medical supplies and transportation costs of their March trip. Any remaining money will go toward earthquake relief, he said.
Fischer had been in Haiti for about a year, he said, working on a project to prevent natural disasters through eco-system management. The group had not considered earthquakes; instead, they were focused on hurricane and flooding problems.
He said he was proud of the presence and impact of Vermonters throughout Haiti long before this disaster struck. He would visit communities and discover posters on the walls of Vermonters from Shelburne Farms who had visited to offer training, or hear Haitian colleagues talk about the bird work conducted there by the Vermont Institute of Natural Science all of which generated good will toward Vermont.
"The entire time I was working there, the presence of Vermonters was felt everywhere," Fischer said.
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