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Searching among a Haitian cathedral's ruins

The collapse of Notre Dame Cathedral in Port-au-Prince struck at the heart of a religiously fervent people.

January 16, 2010|By Tracy Wilkinson

Reporting from Port-Au-Prince, Haiti — The woman wailed outside the ruins of the Notre Dame Cathedral of Port-au-Prince, the iconic Roman Catholic church that symbolized Haiti's religious fervor.

"This is what God did!" she cried Friday morning. "See what God can do!"

Tuesday's earthquake brought down the roof of the enormous pink-and-cream church, filling the apse and nave with tons of rubble. The quake punched out its vivid stained glass windows, twisted its wrought-iron fencing and sliced brick walls like cake. The western steeple, which had soared more than 100 feet, toppled onto parishioners praying at an outdoor shrine to St. Emmanuel. Flies buzzed around the pile of copper, plaster and felled columns.

The senior Catholic figure in the country, Msgr. Joseph Serge Miot, was killed in the magnitude 7.0 earthquake. As many as 100 priests were still missing, sacristan Jean Claude Augustin said.

By the cathedral's ruins lay a small blue copy of the New Testament. Sheet music for Christian hymns was scattered through the street.

Haiti is, officially, predominantly Catholic, with some Protestant faiths. But across the board is an underlying belief in, or respect for, voodoo and other indigenous traditions, which are often mixed in with those religious practices.

Former Haitian President Bertrand Aristide was at one time wildly popular in part for his blend of superstitious spirituality, social activism and Catholic faith.

Many have turned to God for an explanation of this catastrophe visited upon Haiti. Tens of thousands of people have been spending the nights in the streets, singing hymns and calling out the Gospel.

Dudu Orelian, whose brother and nephew were killed, stood outside the cathedral.

"God is angry at the world," Orelian said.

Jack Fisner, a Haitian seminarian who lives in the Dominican Republic, came to Port-au-Prince to begin coordinating aid and prepare a report for the pope.

"This has been a terrible blow to the church and the people," Fisner said. "You have to question your faith, but hopefully not lose it."

Augustin, the sacristan, clambered into the interior ruins of the cathedral, nimbly scaling the mounds of rubble and downed chandeliers. He found a young man attempting to loot the collection box of its money and persuaded him to stop. Instead, the two men worked together to salvage the tithes, gathering up the coins and bills in a sheet.

The statue of Notre Dame, familiar to anyone who ever worshiped in the cathedral, was gone, either destroyed or stolen.

Behind the cathedral, the church's pastoral center, where religion classes were held, and the residences of most of the church leadership and its priests were also destroyed.

Hope remained that the church's general vicar, an active, popular priest in his 80s, might still be alive. Father Charles Benoit, buried under a collapsed four-story building that contained his residence, managed to get a cellular telephone call out to Francois Voleile, a lifelong parishioner, two days ago. He said he was unharmed and had water and juice, but no way out.

Voleile had been keeping vigil at the site ever since, while a couple of other people armed with a tiny mallet and pocket flashlight tried to work their way into a small opening on the side of the mountain of rubble. On Friday, they were getting nowhere.

At midmorning, a search-and-rescue team arrived from Mexico, the topos (moles) who go around the world to extract disaster victims caught in terrible circumstances.

The Mexican team boosted the rescue effort at the cathedral into full gear, using ropes to pull off sheets of laminated roofing and expose more rubble below.

With area residents helping, they used pickaxes and shovels to tear into the top of the mound and create three possible entryways.

They thought they heard occasional sounds to indicate life. They cleared plaster, beams, drawers full of papers and clothes, tossing everything into a widening heap. Only occasionally did one of the crew members pause to salvage something: a red priest's stole, then a copper chalice. He gingerly handed them to other members of the team.

"It is overwhelming, such destruction in a place already destroyed," said Sister Berta Lopez Chavez, who said the team had worked the day before at a Catholic school, pulling out three children alive and the bodies of about 30 others. "Haiti lives two realities: this catastrophe, and their catastrophe of every day, of poverty and ignorance and daily hunger. It's like, what else can happen to them? The little they had is gone."

About three hours after the team from Mexico launched its efforts, a team from Lincolnshire County, England, arrived with their black Labrador, Holly. Everyone was ordered off the hill, and the dog ran back and forth to inspect the scene.

But Holly found no definitive sign of life, said team member Andy Ford. The team from England abandoned the search, leaving a smaller Russian team with a dog to do a second survey.

"We are not discouraged," parishioner Voleile said. "We are still alive and we can go on."

wilkinson@latimes.com

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