Big Interview - I survived the Haiti earthquake - April 2012
When the earthquake struck, Jim Gulley and his six colleagues were trapped for 55 hours in the wreckage of a Port-au-Prince hotel.
He tells his story to GEORGE LUKE
“We came to a point where we didn’t know whether we were going to live or die,” says Jim. “But because of our faith, we could say we’re sure that our future is secure in God, whether we survive or not.”
Jim is an agriculturalist by profession, and also has theological training – both of which he used in his work as an advisor/consultant with the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR).
He was in Haiti in January 2010 to do some agricultural relief work with Haiti’s Methodist Church. Neither he nor any of the other people who were trapped with him were residents at the Hotel Montana. “We just used it as a meeting place,” he recalls.
“As we were walking across the lobby, I heard rumbling. The sound seemed to be coming from behind me, so I turned and looked.
“I saw a pillar with a basket of plants shaking violently. It seemed as if the whole floor was coming up from behind me.
“Somebody said: ‘What is it?’ and I remember saying, ‘It’s an earthquake.’
“Within three seconds, it seemed that the whole building was coming down around us. Dust was coming up, and as I fell down, I recall thinking, ‘Is this the way we’re going to die?’
“You can’t imagine a five- or six-storey building made out of concrete beams falling around you and not crushing you to death.
“We were fortunate that the beams formed a kind of latticework in the roof but had recessions for the lights. We just happened to be walking under one of those sections as it came down around us like a trap.
“Unfortunately, the first things I heard as the rubble came down were the voices of my colleagues Sam Dixon and Clint Rabb.
“Sam said: ‘My legs are broken’ and then Clint said his were too. They had both been pinned right at the feet by those beams coming down.”
Both men eventually died.
The next morning, they heard people on the outside looking for survivors. They knocked and yelled, but got no response.
“Eventually, some voices came and spoke to us through the rubble,” he says. “We could barely hear them, but thought this was a good sign. Those voices went away and never returned.
“That night, we said: ‘We can make another night. It’s going to take time; there must be a lot of damage everywhere.’
“The next day passed slowly. We began to try to figure out ways to get out. We talked to each other; told stories; we prayed; sometimes we sang together.
“Then a colleague who was separated from us said she heard some voices. She looked out through a space she’d found, and saw some lights coming towards us.
“As the lights got closer, we all yelled. A voice said: ‘We’re French firemen. We’re here to take you out.’ We broke into song and sang Praise God From Whom all Blessings Flow.”
Jim says that his experience inspired him to work full-time with UMCOR in Haiti. He has been back to Haiti quite a few times since the earthquake, and feels very positive about the rebuilding process the country is going through.
The earthquake has made him more aware of his own humanity.
“I realised that you can’t always do everything you would like to,” he says. “You would like to relieve the suffering of your colleagues, and you do the best you can, but you cannot take them out from under that rubble.
“And so you’re aware that there are some things that you can do, and others that you can’t.
“It also reminded me that there are things that God doesn’t do. I don’t attribute that earthquake to God; I don’t think God caused 300,000 Haitians to die; I don’t think that was God’s will.
“But I do believe that through all that happened, God’s presence was very real to us …
“I knew that we were walking with him and him with us.”