You can see it in Jesse Hagopian's eyes: somewhere in the past, he witnessed something -- some things -- that still haunts him, difficult to exorcise.
Perhaps it's because that haunted past sits so close to the present. Barely two weeks have passed since January 12, the day a 7.0 earthquake struck Haiti, crumbling buildings, upending lives and ending others -- perhaps as many as 200,000. For most of us, the heartbreaking images shone from TV and computer screens, or were printed in newspapers, as we watched it from afar -- if we could watch at all. But Hagopian, 31, didn't have the luxury of being removed from the devastation. He was there, miles from the epicenter, when the earth shook and buckled and rolled. And he wasn't alone: His wife, Sarah Wilhelm, was with him, as was their one-year-old son, Miles. They remained in Haiti for nearly a week, seeing the destruction and horror day after day after day, before being evacuated and returning to Seattle safely.
But the safety his body now experiences has yet to render itself fully on his psyche. It's hard, the unemployed schoolteacher admits, hard to think, to talk about what happened. Yet he's willing to try. And so, in the front room of his Mt. Baker home, he recalls what he saw in Haiti, while his wife keeps mostly to other rooms, remaining quiet, while their child, eyes sparkling as he plays near Hagopian, occasionally reaches for the digital recorder as his father recounts a tale of tragedy -- and unexpected miracles.
Why don't we start by talking about what you were doing January 12, 2010.
Well, I was in Haiti, with my family -- my wife does HIV work. I was watching my son at the hotel while my wife was at work and I remember thinking -- I don't know the exact time, probably around 4:30 [p.m.]; my son, Miles, was crying a lot, he was ready to nurse -- and I thought, "How nice would it be if she came home early today and we could just relax." Then I remember thinking explicitly, "There's no way she's going to come back early," because she usually works late into the evening. Then just a few minutes later she walked in the door and I was so happy, Miles really wanted to see her. Then bammm! five minutes after that, the earthquake hit.
The bed jumped up and Sarah grabbed Miles and she was running for the balcony -- she had never been in an earthquake before -- so I grabbed them and we went into the doorway and rode it out. I don't remember how long it lasted but it seemed like a long time. Everything crashing down in the room: the mirrors, the sink being jarred out of its fixture, bottles crashing -- just chaos. But thankfully the structural integrity of our section of the hotel was mostly intact. The walls weren't crashing down around us. So then we just tried to grab the most important things and get out. As soon as we left the room we saw all the Haitian staff were on their knees screaming and praying. You couldn't see very far into the horizon because there was a cloud, which we later found out was a cloud of concrete.
You mean concrete dust?
Yeah. So we went out to the front of the hotel where all the guests were being assembled. At that point we didn't know how bad it was. We saw the cracks in the walls and the broken glass and whatnot, but we didn't see the other side of the hotel that was hidden from our view that had collapsed. We didn't know that many buildings had collapsed around the city.
So I got the owner of the hotel -- she had a phone that worked, our phones went down -- and I was able to call my mom pretty soon after. I told her, "We had an earthquake here, it shook us up, but we're OK." She said, "Thanks a lot for calling." The owner needed her phone and I said [to my mother], "I'll call you back later." Little did I know that that would be the last communication I'd have for a while because the phone lines completely went down, the internet went down, television went down.
That was such a miracle for our family: First, my wife came home early; second, I was able to contact my family back home and let them know I was all right.
Can you describe the capital, Port-au-Prince?
We were in P