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Lexington man witnessed carnage in Haiti

Marc Graviss believed if he could just get back to his luxury hotel he'd be fine. He'd grab something to eat, the Living Bible he'd carried with him for 27 years, the $3,000 he'd left in his room and a chance to gather his wits.

He knew his thinking was selfish. An entire city was dying around him. But, he figured, if he could get himself together, he could better help others.

He had to get back to the Hotel Montana, where he had spent a single night in Haiti before setting out on his one-man missionary trip.

That had started well enough on Tuesday morning. But it was late afternoon now, just minutes before 5 p.m. on Jan. 12, and a 7.0 earthquake had, in 15 seconds, thoroughly dismantled whatever civilization Haiti had built over centuries in its capital city of Port-au-Prince.

The anxious Lexington man had been thrown around the red Nissan truck he was riding in. At his side was a Haitian pastor, Thomslay Laguerre, and, in front of him, a driver he had hired that morning.

The truck had been dribbled like a basketball on the Haitian street. The utility poles that lined the streets had bent over, touching the ground and standing back up repeatedly during the shaking. Rocks had fallen as if from the heavens. The noise was as thick as the dust. People had begun to run into the streets. Screams were coming from everywhere.

A lot of the people running for their lives had their arms raised, he noticed, and they were calling for Jesus.

This was not the evangelism Graviss had planned.

It was God's doing

Graviss, 55, had set out for Haiti on Monday, Jan. 11 on a 6 a.m. flight out of Lexington. On his flight from Miami to Port-au-Prince, he requested an upgrade and was seated across from a Haitian minister who had a congregation of about 100.

This was God's doing, Graviss thought to himself. Graviss had tried, without luck, to find a national ministry to guide his own work through Haiti but no organization had responded with help. So he had boarded the plane, determined to go it alone. Then, Pastor Laguerre appeared.

The two men talked. Graviss could see Laguerre's heart. Graviss explained that he wanted to go to Haiti's largest garbage dump and hand out $10 bills to those scavenging for food. He would simply say, "Jesus loves you" as he handed out the money.

Laguerre said he would help. "You are in my country," he told Graviss. "You are with me now."

The men arranged to meet again on Tuesday.

Graviss checked into Room 412 at the ritzy, foreigner favorite Hotel Montana at around 7 p.m. Monday. After securing $5,000 in small bills in his hotel safe, he went downstairs and ate. He went back to his room and went to bed. He was very excited about Tuesday.

Handing out blessings

Shortly after 9 a.m., Graviss stood on the bed of the red Nissan truck that Laguerre had brought, complete with driver. Looking out over the massive dump, smoke and dust obscured Graviss's view. The smell overwhelmed him. Dozens, then hundreds of people began to wander over to the strangers. Pastor Laguerre told them he was there to bless them. Graviss was anxious to start handing out the money.

The pastor asked the crowd to form a line which quickly became more chaotic than Graviss had wanted. But the joy was palpable.

Soon out of money, an exhilarated Graviss wanted to go back to the hotel to get more money. Driving away, Graviss realized he had $500 left, taped in his back pocket. He had seen a neighborhood made of tarp houses and told Laguerre that's where he wanted to go next.

But Laguerre said he wanted to show Graviss his home and his church first. He wanted to show Graviss how he was almost done building the ladies of his church "a privy." He explained how he had held services five nights a week, had a feeding program and helped Haitian street children get adopted by local families.

It was just past noon.

Feeling blessed

The pastor's house was on the second level of the church. Graviss was introduced to everyone there. Laguerre began to talk about a village outside of Port-au-Prince where he used to preach. He was clearly trying to get Graviss to come with him to see the poverty that was outside the city in the provinces.

Graviss really wanted to go back to the plastic tarp town. Then he wanted to go back early to his hotel for a shower, a jog and an early dinner. He was hungry.

Then, surprising himself, Graviss relented.

Around 1:30 p.m., they headed out of town for the long afternoon. More than two hours later, they were heading back into town, broke, but feeling more blessed for their sojourn into the country.

It was a beautiful day but the traffic was bad. They stopped for water. It was almost 5 o'clock.

Fresh hell found Haiti when they were waiting at a red light.

A two-story hotel next to the truck was in complete collapse when the shaking stopped. The three men got out of the truck and began to yell at the shattered structure, "bon jour, bon jour." People were dead inside. You could see that. Panic was everywhere else.

Graviss's cell phone was dead. The three men helped where they could. They eventually got back in the truck to see if they could get to the hotel.

An hour in, a Haitian policeman tried to commandeer the truck to take some of the injured to the hospital. The driver said he would take them. For another hour, as dark came upon the city, the truck battled the people in the street and word came that the hospital was gone. It was clear Laguerre needed to get to his family. He told Graviss to stay with the truck and the injured. Forty-five minutes later, the pastor sent a man to gather Graviss. Not sure what else to do, Graviss left to be with Laguerre.

Outside Laguerre's destroyed home and sanctuary, Graviss could hear songs beseeching the Almighty for help before he realized the pastor's family was safe.

After a time, Graviss decided to walk to the Montana. Laguerre said he would go with him. "You are in my country, brother," he said. "I will not leave you."

They set out together, through alleys and dirt trails, over rubble. All the while, the pastor took time to bless those around him.

For the last few miles, they hailed a man in a white overheating Toyota and promised him $100 to take them to the hotel. At some point, someone put a young Haitian mother and her baby in the front seat. The mother kept saying her baby needed help. Everyone in the car could see that the baby was dead.

Pastor Laguerre finally leaned over the seat and gently explained that the child was no longer alive. The mother opened her baby's eye and touched its pupil. When there was no reaction, she knew. She covered her baby and got out of the car.

Carnage

They walked the last half mile to the hotel. Where there had been a world-class resort hotel and spa, Graviss saw carnage and debris and a triage staging area. The four-story-high roof line was on the ground, pitched sickly and steeply forward. Graviss thanked God for his salvation. He had wanted to be in that hotel and it was Laguerre who had been sent by God, he believed, to keep him from it.

It was 9 o'clock at night. What could he do now?

He found a woman who looked like she was in charge. Her name was Angela Chainer. She was in a business suit, no shoes, bloody feet and had a working radio on her hip. When she talked into the radio, Graviss noticed, people answered.

Chainer had been at a business meeting on the hotel veranda when the quake hit. A U.S. Embassy official, she had taken charge.

Graviss could hear survivors clearly crying out, some with words, some in moans. He began immediately to help others who were trying to identify where the living were trapped. It became apparent that their hands were not good tools. And that rubble was shifting with the aftershocks.

It was like they were trying to take down the Empire State Building with a hammer, Graviss thought.

Some college students from Florida were on the small lawn, hovered over a bit by Chainer. There on mission work, they were still missing some in their group. They hardly moved.

All through the night, the survivors took turns learning the names of the trapped. They told them help was on the way. A contingent of United Nations troops from the Philippines got there before daybreak. Maybe things were getting better.

Getting out

It was 100 times worse in daylight. Many of the voices that had been promised help the night before were silent. Every time a new aftershock came, fresh fear shone in people's eyes.

Graviss was sent out early on, by order of Chainer, to see if he could find a good landing site for evacuation helicopters.

Laguerre left to check on family but returned.

All day, men, including Graviss, pulled a few people from the wreckage, dragging them with hoses, using steel spears and a single sledge hammer.

A shaken World Bank executive in the triage area, a man who had lost several colleagues in the earthquake, had a working satellite phone. He offered the phone to Graviss, who called his mother in Lexington.

By mid-afternoon, a white U.N. chopper began landing on a helipad which Graviss had helped clear.

About 4:30 p.m. Chainer turned to the dozen Americans there: "I'm going to get you out of here. When I tell you to move, move quick."

Graviss knew it was time. His heart was heavy. He knew what he was leaving behind. But he could do more if he could just get home.

A military man on a motorcycle was waiting for them on the main road. Chainer told the group to walk in single file with the officer. "You're going to the U.S. ambassador's house," she said.

Laguerre walked part of the way with them. When it was time to say goodbye, Graviss had the pastor write down all his information on a torn piece of paper.

At the ambassador's house, a black van with bulletproof windows pulled up. Everyone thanked Chainer and they drove to the U.S. Embassy. There were 150 Americans already there.

That night, Graviss sat on a hard orange chair. He ate a package of crackers, a chocolate energy bar and a bag of peanut M&Ms. He used a water bottle as a pillow but did not sleep.

A changed man

By 8 am. Jan. 14, dazed Haitians on the street watched as 250 Americans drove from the embassy to the airport. There, the Americans stood on the tarmac until 2 p.m., watching Belgian, Canadian, Spanish and Algerian cargo planes land. When the first plane of Americans was loading, Graviss was told to get on. Landing in Santo Domingo, the Americans were given fresh clothes and toiletries. Taken to a hotel, the first order of business was to make travel arrangements. Graviss was told he would need to get a new passport first. He ate a real meal for the first time in two days. He showered twice and tried to sleep.

In the middle of the night, he picked up his ringing phone: "A knock will come to your door. Answer it."

He did. It was a man in dark clothing who handed Graviss four sealed white envelopes. Each was marked: "The United States of America Official Business" and stamped "Haiti Evacuee."

He was told not to open them. By 3:10 p.m. on Friday, a man carrying only dirty clothes and a baggie with deodorant and toothpaste was on a plane to Atlanta. By 8 p.m., Graviss was in Lexington, a changed man.

Sticking together

Numbers are still sketchy but it is believed that more than 200 people died in the Hotel Montana collapse.

The group of eight college students, from Lynn University, got home to South Florida Jan. 15. Six of their colleagues were still unaccounted for as of Friday. Chainer got home Jan. 16, after surgery in Santo Domingo on a fractured hip.

On Tuesday, Marc Graviss and the people of Bethel Harvest Church on Nicholasville Road wired $5,000 to the Dominican Republic in the name of Pastor Laguerre. Laguerre had to drive six hours to get the money. He then bought much-needed supplies and got them to his Haitian contacts.

On Thursday, at 11:20 a.m., Laguerre arrived in Kentucky. He was met at the airport by Graviss.

Graviss did not plan to leave his side. Laguerre is in his country now.

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