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Haiti quake survivor: 'I really thought I was going to die'

Tuesday, January 19, 2010 - Haiti quake survivor: 'I really thought I was going to die'

By Raymond Castile, Suburban Journals, January 19, 2010

Jim Knaust received a text message from his daughter at 4:45 p.m. Jan. 12.

"Me and Dee are OK," the message read.

He texted back, "Why wouldn't you be all right?"

His daughter, 21-year-old Cari Knaust, was scheduled to return the next day after spending a week volunteering at an orphanage and clinic in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.

Jim Knaust, 51, shrugged off the message, finished his work day and headed outside to his truck. He turned on the radio. The airwaves buzzed with breaking news - a massive earthquake had rocked Haiti.

"That didn't sound good," he said.

The Knaust family spent the next two days glued to the television in their Lake Saint Louis home, waiting for news on their daughter.

Cari Knaust spent the rest of the week protecting orphans, helping earthquake victims and wondering if the next aftershock would bring the roof down on her head.

"I'm just happy to be alive," Cari said Saturday night. "I really thought I was going to die."

Cari returned home Saturday afternoon to a family celebration. With Christmas lights still glowing outside, her nine siblings, four grandparents, friends and extended family filled the living room, listening to Cari tell her story. Every time she finished, another friend would arrive, sparking another round of storytelling.

It was the second Haiti trip for Cari, who in May will begin studying at the Goldfarb School of Nursing at Barnes-Jewish College.

Two years ago, her parents connected her with family friend Dee Leahy, a retired nurse who runs a nonprofit organization called People to People, the Haitian Children's Project. Leahy travels to Haiti six times a year to assist the Missionaries of Charity, a Catholic order established by Mother Teresa. The sisters run an orphanage, free clinic and home for the terminally ill in Port-au-Prince.

Cari's mother, 49-year-old Cindy Knaust, said she talked her daughter into volunteering with Leahy.

"We want our kids to know that most people in the world do not live like we do in the United States," Cindy said. "We want them to know how blessed we really are."

In 2008, Cari accompanied Leahy on a three-week trip to Haiti, volunteering at the Missionaries of Charity compound.

"The kids are starving to death," Cari said. "When you go into a room with the orphans, they all hold up their hands and want you to hold them. You see it in their big eyes. They are so sad."

Cari said there were over 1 million orphans in Haiti before the earthquake.

"Imagine how many there are now," she said.

On Jan. 5, Cari arrived in Haiti for her second trip with Leahy. She immediately noticed something was different.

"Before, there was sewage everywhere, mounds of dirt and trash," Cari said. "This time, there were people cleaning the streets. Everything seemed cleaner. Everyone seemed happier. You could tell they were trying to better their lives. I was excited for them."

Jan. 12 was supposed to be her last full day in Port-au-Prince. She and Leahy had lunch at the Hotel Montana. One of the most famous and upscale hotels in Haiti, the building would collapse just hours later.

After lunch, Cari and Leahy threw an ice cream party for the orphans. It was the first time many of the children had tasted ice cream, Cari said.

They were supposed to have dinner at a friend's house where Cari was staying, but the ice cream party ran late. They rushed to clean up after the party, not knowing that their dinner destination was about to be destroyed.

"If we had been on time, I'd be dead," Cari said.

The pair threw the party supplies into Leahy's car and pulled up to the compound's security gate. They got out to wish the guards a final farewell.

Then it hit.

"Everything started shaking so bad," Cari said. "It felt like two football players on either side of me, pushing me as hard as they could back and forth like a rag doll. I didn't know what was happening."

The shaking stopped. Cari and Leahy looked at each other, their eyes wide.

"I said, 'Holy crap, what happened?'" Cari said. "Dee said, 'Earthquake!' I said, 'Oh my God.' Then Dee yelled, 'The kids!'"

The women ran to the orphanage. The two-story building was one of the few structures still standing on the street, Cari said. They started evacuating the children.

"We each grabbed an armful of kids and ran outside to an open area away from any buildings," Cari said. "There were 10 of us trying to carry out 100 kids. Someone gave me four kids. They were really sick and tiny."

The nuns, nurses and volunteers ran up and down the stairs, carrying children outside to a small square. They were counting heads when the first aftershock hit.

"Everything was trembling and I was holding onto all these kids," Cari said. "Everybody was screaming. Everything was in slow motion like a dream."

The women tried to calm the children by singing to them. After 15 minutes, people started banging on the security gate.

"The gate opened and all these injured Haitians started walking and limping in," Cari said. "There were people with broken arms and legs, people with amputated limbs, arms and legs barely hanging on by a muscle. On one guy, all the skin on his leg was off. You could see right through to the bone. One lady, half of her face was torn off."

The clinic workers moved the children to an open-air church, getting them out of the way and shielding them from the disturbing images. Cari decided to stay with the kids.

"It was too graphic to see all that stuff coming in," she said. "I could not handle it. I could handle little wounds and stuff, but not people with their faces coming off. People were screaming, 'Help me, help me,' praying out loud. There were all these emotions. I could not think. I didn't know what to do."

Cari texted her father, telling him she was safe. Just after she sent the message, the phone signal went dead.

Leahy stayed with the injured and tasked Cari with keeping the orphans calm. Cari huddled with the children in the outdoor church for two days, never sleeping. The ground shook every 15 minutes, she said.

"With every jolt, the kids would start screaming again," Cari said. "Everything seemed much scarier at night. I could not wait until the sun came up."

Cari said she wondered whether help was coming.

"I thought, why should they care about Haiti?" she said. "Nobody was helping the country before. Why would they help it now?"

At daybreak, she saw a U.S. Coast Guard plane fly overhead. Everyone became excited, she said. It was the first sign that help might be on its way.

With no food or water, there was little to do besides wait and sing to the orphans while Leahy and the sisters tended to people's wounds. Cari's luggage and purse were in her friend's house, so she had no clothes, money, passport or identification.

She and Leahy drove to the house to see what they could find. The owner, Gertrude, had escaped harm. But the house was flattened. Cari found a hole in a collapsed cement wall adjacent to where her room had been. Peering into the hole, she could not believe her luck. She saw her purse hanging just out of her reach. Cari used a rake to fish her purse out of the rubble.

On Jan. 14, Cari and Leahy drove to the U.S. Embassy. What was normally a 15-minute trip took more than three hours. The roads and bridges were destroyed. It was the first time Cari grasped the scale of the devastation.

"We saw a lot of schools all collapsed," she said. "Houses of people we knew were completely gone. Places we had shopped for food were gone. There were dead people laying everywhere on the streets. People walking in a daze. Everyone was in shock. I saw a mass grave, a huge hole where they dumped all the bodies. The smell was horrible. I'll never forget it. Like body odor mixed with sewage and something rotten, times 10."

At the embassy, an official gave Cari travel papers and told her to go straight to the airport and get on a plane. Instead, she returned to the orphanage and rounded up the other 10 American volunteers. Leahy elected to stay in Haiti.

Cari drove to the airport with 10 women, intent on leaving as a group. But on the way, some of them started "freaking out," Cari said. They wanted to return to the orphanage.

"I told them, 'I'm going to get myself home and whoever wants to go home can come with me,'" Cari said. "Six people jumped out with me and the rest went back to the compound."

At the airport, the women found a chaotic scene. Crowds were standing in the wrong areas, waiting to board planes. Nothing seemed to be moving. Cari navigated around the crowd and found a security guard. He connected her with an American official who escorted her and the other volunteers across the tarmac to a Coast Guard plane.

By midnight, Cari was in a hotel in Santo Domingo, in the Dominican Republic.

In Lake Saint Louis, Cindy Knaust received a cell phone call. At first, she thought it was her other daughter, Lindsay. Then the voice said, "Mom, it's Cari."

"I started crying," Cindy said. "I was so glad to hear her voice. It was so reassuring. Just to talk to her was what I really needed."

Cari was already waiting for them when her parents arrived Saturday at Lambert-St. Louis International Airport.

"I ran up to her and gave her the biggest hug," Cindy said. "I felt like I couldn't let go. She was talking a mile a minute, running on adrenaline."

Back home, the first thing Cari wanted to do was shower, brush her teeth and get her first real sleep in four days. But the endless stream of family and well-wishers delayed her rest.

"I feel kind of selfish because all I cared about was getting my daughter home," Jim Knaust said. "I know a lot of people are down there suffering. We wanted her to be down there to help, not to be the one who gets help. Hopefully, this experience won't make her afraid to help people."

Cari said there was no chance that her ordeal would stop her from volunteering.

"I will go back to Haiti," Cari said. "They need help now more than ever. It is the place I fell in love with. Just because something horrific happened, that doesn't mean you can't love it."