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The hotel on a hill: In rubble, still a symbol of hope

By Wayne Drash, CNN

  • In an instant, one of Haiti's finest hotels crumbled, trapping guests beneath rubble
  • Professor at hotel survived 2003 al Qaeda attack in Saudi Arabia
  • Woman had returned to her native Haiti to fulfill dream in hotel management
  • More than 15,000 people join Facebook Hotel Montana group, hoping and praying for those inside

(CNN) -- It was Tuesday, January 12, barbecue night at the Hotel Montana. Guests were invited for cocktails under the shade of one of the hotel's centerpieces: a magnificent century-old mahogany tree. Dinner would follow on the rooftop restaurant with its stunning view of Port-au-Prince.

Dan Woolley and his colleague David Hames were there -- two fathers whose work for Compassion International brought them to Haiti to document the impoverished country's most vulnerable: the children.

The two were just returning from an interview with a Haitian woman. Two of her children, she'd told them, are mentally handicapped because of the squalor that surrounds them. Her third, sponsored by Compassion International, is healthy.

Both men were excited. The woman's story, they thought, would touch people and inspire generosity. Into the lobby they went, cameras in hand.

All over the spacious hotel, it seemed, were humanitarians -- Americans, Canadians, French and a host of people from other nations. Some, like Woolley and Hames, worked for relief agencies; others volunteered through their churches or schools.

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Editor's note: Reporting this story

Rick Santos was there with five colleagues from IMA World Health and the United Methodist Committee on Relief, all focused on strengthening Haiti's health care.

Britney Gengel had arrived with 11 classmates and two professors from South Florida's Lynn University. She excitedly called her mother shortly before 4 p.m. After a day spent feeding the poor, she told her: "I've found my calling."

One of the students' chaperones was Richard Bruno, a beloved Lynn professor who had traveled the world as a doctor for the U.S. State Department's Foreign Service. He was the physician on international trips for three secretaries of state, including Colin Powell.

He'd lived all over -- in Nigeria, South Africa and Germany, to name a few. He'd survived a 2003 al Qaeda attack on a compound housing Westerners in Saudi Arabia.

Home now was sunny Boca Raton, Florida, and the father of three girls was looking forward to reuniting with his eldest daughter in a few days. Lauren, 28, was flying down from New York to go over details of her upcoming wedding. Bruno had told her he'd be home in time to pick her up at the airport on Friday.

"Send your itinerary," he'd said.

Sarah Lauture had already completed her trip home. The 28-year-old banquet manager at Hotel Montana was a native Haitian who'd returned to her country in fall 2008.

Ever since she was 14, Lauture had talked of becoming a hotel manager. After studying languages at McGill University in Canada, she'd earned a graduate degree at Paris' prestigious Vatel International Business School, which specializes in hotel and tourism management. She'd worked at luxury hotels in Washington and Miami before feeling the pull to go home.

Lauture was proud of her Haitian roots. She also knew her country's troubled history from personal experience. Six years earlier, in January 2004, her father was kidnapped and killed. The man charged in the slaying, later killed by U.N. peacekeepers, was accused of leading a gang blamed for a wave of kidnappings and killings that engulfed Haiti around the ouster of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

Coming back to Haiti not only meant a chance to further her career dream, but also the opportunity to be near her mother again. Lauture loved the family-owned Hotel Montana -- both the people she worked with and the guests she met. Mother and daughter had celebrated New Year's there together.

On this day, her shift was to end at 5 p.m.

At 4:53, the Earth shook.

A candle flickers

At least 150,000 are dead. Almost 200,000 injured. And 1.5 million remain homeless, living in makeshift camps and in the streets. In some instances, surviving the 7.0-magnitude earthquake was sheer randomness; a step in either direction meant the difference between life and death.

The scope of the tragedy that shook Haiti is almost incomprehensible. But a look inside one single place on that fateful day helps illuminate the larger story: It is a tale of horrible loss and destruction, but also one of hope.

As awesome as the destructive force of nature, so is the human will to survive.

In a country so impoverished, the hotel on the hillside stood for so much more. As it grew from 12 rooms in 1946 to a 145-room landmark, it symbolized the long-denied potential for all of Haiti.

It is in ruins now. For two weeks, it was the site of constant search-and-rescue operations by teams from France, the United States, Mexico, Brazil and Canada, as well as Haitians.

Watch: Searchers comb hotel for missing

The giant mahogany tree, one of its signature features, remains standing.

Rescue teams are still there, but their task is more about recovery. The last rescue in Haiti was elsewhere on Tuesday. They believe as many as 60 people, including 17 Americans, could still be buried in the hotel rubble. Names of the missing are written on two small boards at the site. A candle flickers as a constant memorial.

"We are trying to recover, not just the people that are here, but recover some sense of closure for the parents and the people and the loved ones and family that are out there," said Bill Hawkins of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

More than 15,000 people have joined a Facebook page called "Haiti Earthquake Hotel Montana." Loved ones of the missing -- strangers just weeks ago -- have formed a bond. They leave messages of encouragement.

"The candle of our hope has trembled as buffeted by the winds of loss and heartache, but for those still missing ... it burns brightly," one message says.

I'm wishing she will come back to tell you her story herself.
--Joelle Benoit Lauture, mother of Sarah Lauture

News of every rescue lights up the page. If there are air pockets in the rubble, if loved ones were near the bar or kitchen or some source of sustenance, the families believe, they could be alive even now.

Singing and praying

Amid the chaos, ceilings cracked and people screamed. Concrete fell.

Dan Woolley looked around. He shouted for his friend.

David! David!

He heard nothing. He could hardly see. He crawled to an elevator about 20 feet away. A Haitian man was also there, struggling to survive.

Woolley's leg was gashed to the bone. His head was bleeding. He used his iPhone to look up first aid treatment. He bandaged his leg with his shirt and tied a belt around it. He put a sock on his head and pressed it to the wall.

Watch Woolley describe using iPhone app

Trapped nearby was Rick Santos and his group, in a space barely big enough to crawl. Huge chunks of debris pinned down two Methodist ministers. Santos reached into his bag to find some Alleve.

They prayed for themselves and for all Haitians. If Hotel Montana was in ruins, they thought, no telling what the rest of the country was like.

From the elevator, Woolley heard them singing "Peace Like a River." He knew the more he held onto hope the better his chance of survival.

He thought of Psalms 40:1-2 and sang out:
"I waited patiently for the Lord
He inclined his ear and heard my cry
And lifted me from the pit,
Out of the mud and mire
He set me on a rock and put a new song in my heart."

Woolley believed it was the will of God that he was there, and God could take him into heaven or rescue him.

He just didn't know which one it would be.

As the hours passed, he feared dehydration. The survival lessons of an episode of Discovery Channel's "Man vs. Wild" flashed into his mind.

He urinated into his T-shirt and squeezed the liquid into his mouth.

The dad with outstretched arms

In New York, Lauren Bruno was preparing to e-mail her flight information to her father when the news flashed: earthquake in Haiti.

Hours would pass before she learned something of his whereabouts. Eight of the Lynn University students made it out alive, and they said her father was in the gym when the quake struck.

It wasn't surprising to hear that her father was exercising.

Bruno's middle daughter, Kelly, had her leg amputated below her knee when she was 6 months old. It's not a disability, her father always told her. You will accomplish great things in life.

That little girl, now 25, has competed in countless triathlons, including the heralded Ironman. Inspired by his daughter, Bruno was training for his own triathlon.

Awaiting word of her father, Lauren Bruno heard from so many who said he'd influenced their lives. To her, he's simply Dad.

On April Fool's Day, the doctor who treated top U.S. diplomats placed buckets of water outside his daughters' bedroom doors and wrapped the toilets with plastic wrap.

At Easter, he put cotton balls around the house. Look, it's the Easter Bunny's tail!

At Christmas, he didn't know what to give his daughters. After all, he was a guy. So he hid money in boxes of toothpaste and soap wrappers around the house.

When she jogged with her father around the neighborhood, Lauren Bruno says, he always dashed to the front at the end. He'd raise his arms in victory, a goofy grin on his face.

Now, that image came to mind: her father's arms outstretched, trying to keep the Hotel Montana from falling down.

'Don't be upset at God'

Beneath the rubble, Dan Woolley pulled out a pen and started writing notes to his wife and sons, ages 6 and 3. He used a light from his camera to see.

He wanted his boys to have a message from their dad to carry with them for the rest of their lives -- to help them through life's struggles.

"Don't be upset at God," Woolley wrote. "He always provides for his children even in hard times."

It wasn't a low point, just a sober recognition of reality.

He passed the time talking with the Haitian man in the elevator with him. They exchanged names. They tried to keep each other from falling asleep. They sang "Great Is Thy Faithfulness."

They could still hear Santos and his colleagues nearby.

Santos carried candy to calm his two children when they threw tantrums. He had one Tootsie Pop in his bag. He shared the lollipop to lift the spirits of those around him. They used cell phones to light up the dark space.

Rescuers would come, they told each other.

One of Santos' colleagues, 65-year-old Sarla Chand, looked for air pockets and light.

Finally, they heard sledgehammers and other equipment.

Help us!

A voice asked how many were there. Six and two others in the elevator, they responded.

The rescuer hollered: Are you well?

No, we're hurt.

Silence fell over the area for hours. It would be Thursday, January 14, before they heard the smashing of hammers and drills again. Rescuers cut through layers of concrete and pulled Santos and the others through a hole about 2 feet wide.

They'd spent 50 hours buried in the rubble.

A mother's frantic search

Joelle Benoit Lauture rushed to the hotel. Her only daughter, Sarah, was somewhere inside.

There she watched her fellow Haitians use their bare hands to pull seven people from the ruins. They were all alive.

She spent four nights at the site, hoping for any sign of her daughter, the beautiful woman with curly hair and an engaging smile.

Sarah, she says, is the embodiment of love, loyalty, honesty, truth.

L'amour, loyauté, l'honneteté, vérité.

"She has a beautiful soul," she said. "She's a fighter, a real fighter. Believe me."

Her daughter's office is in an area of the hotel that has yet to be searched, she says. Three of her colleagues are also believed to be there.

"I'm comforted because everyone who worked there told me how she was liked."

A photograph on Facebook shows Sarah with a friend, a glass of wine in hand. She's bursting with laughter.

Hallucinations amid hope

Dan Woolley could hear the most beautiful sound: the noise of rescuers saving Santos and his group. "We'll come back for you," one shouted.

But his world went silent. Six, eight, 10 hours passed.

Woolley began hallucinating.

We're not going to rescue you, one voice said.

We're spending too much time to rescue two people, said another.

It was as if they were taunting him.

The clock kept ticking; still no sign of help.

You forgot us! Come back! he screamed.

It was the nadir of his life.

A devoted Christian, Woolley wondered if he had done something wrong: Has God abandoned me? Am I sliding into hell?

Hell was a moment of hope and then hours of despair.

Some 3,000 miles away, Woolley's wife, Christy, grappled with similar pain -- and lost hope. More than two days had passed since the earthquake. "I didn't know if Dan was in heaven or in Haiti."

Then came a phone call: He was alive.

Sixty-five hours entombed in the rubble, Woolley believes he received a miracle. He and the Haitian trapped in the elevator with him are among the more than 130 rescued by international teams during the past 17 days.

For those with missing loved ones, each rescue brings hope. Those who survived struggle with an unanswerable question: Why did I live when others perished?

Rick Santos learned two friends trapped with him didn't make it. The Rev. Samuel Dixon died at the scene; the Rev. Clint Rabb passed away from injuries after his rescue.

Professor Richard Bruno has not been found. Neither has his colleague and four of the Lynn University students, including Britney Gengel.

Bruno's daughter, Lauren, said her wedding will go forward on April 9. Her father would want it that way.

"We keep joking he's probably in a Haitian hospital in the middle of nowhere, bugging some Haitian nurse and bossing her around," she said. "But I think we know that's not true."

Sarah Lauture is also still missing. Her mother clings to her faith.

"Do you believe in God?" she said. "In my family, we all do. ... I'm wishing she will come back to tell you her story herself."

The mother returns every day to the hotel.

"I will stay there ... until they give me my daughter -- alive or, I hope not, dead," she said. "God gave her to me. I can't leave her like that. So I am waiting."

Like many others, Dan Woolley's faith was tested, but he credits it with helping him survive. "Ultimately, God saved my life," he said. "Rescuers saved my life."

He's torn with emotion. His colleague, David Hames, was just steps away from him in the lobby when everything crashed down. He is still missing. "My friend David is, in every way, a better man than me."

Woolley thinks back on the hours before the quake, when he and Hames were so touched by the Haitian woman who poured her heart out.

And he wonders: What happened to her and her three children?

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