Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Rescuers' joy mingles with agony

By Ivan Watson, CNN
  • One man pulled from destroyed supermarket survived on peanut butter and jelly
  • U.S. rescuer finds woman whose son lives near him
  • Turkish and American rescuers work together at supermarket site
  • Others still waiting for news -- good or bad

Port-au-Prince, Haiti (CNN) -- In the eerie light of a supermarket storage room, an international team of rescue workers waited for a miracle.

This basement warehouse was the only room left standing in the five-story Caribbean Supermarket after last week's devastating earthquake.

Rescue teams from Florida and Turkey had been tunneling up from their staging point to try to reach people, buried in the mountain of rubble.

Finally, at 10:23 on Sunday night, a survivor emerged from a crack in the rubble, strapped to a stretcher, and was passed carefully down an orange ladder. He was a 30-year-old Haitian man. Rescuers withheld his name.

As he came into the light, he looked around and smiled. He waved to the exhausted Americans and Turks around him, and made a sign of jubilation: a thumbs up.

Against all odds, this man escaped what should have been his tomb.

"The first thing he told us was, I ate a lot of peanut butter and jelly," said Lieutenant Frank Mainaide of South Florida Urban Search and Rescue.

"Whatever aisle he was in he had peanut butter and jelly. That's probably why he survived."

Video: Supermarket rescue offers hope
Video: Mom buried, but still alive
  • Haiti
  • Port-au-Prince
  • Earthquakes

Moments later workers pulled out a second survivor, a barefoot, 40-year-old Haitian woman who was also a customer of the supermarket. She murmured "ok, ok" and "thank you" to her saviors, as they lowered her to the floor.

"They were remarkably in very good condition considering they've been in there for five days," said Lieutenant Mainaide, his voice hoarse after hours of intense work.

Managers said there may have been up to 150 people in the Caribbean Supermarket when the building collapsed. In the first days after the earthquake, rescue teams from Venezuela and Iceland succeeded in pulling several survivors from the debris.

Saturday night, a search and rescue team from New York City joined a group of 10 Turks from the non-profit disaster rescue group GEA. The Turkish volunteers, who paid for their own plane tickets to come work in Haiti last week, had made contact with several more survivors in the rubble.

Over the course of the night, the Turkish-American team-- who were soon joined by the task force from South Florida -- succeeded in digging out a male Haitian employee of the supermarket, a 13-year-old girl and an American woman in her 50s named Mireille Ditmer.

"For the full 108 hours she had been on her knees in between two walls," said her son Ricky Ditmer, speaking in an interview later on Sunday in Florida. "After they got her out, they said she was speechless but so happy and the first words she said were that she wanted to be with her family."

In a remarkable coincidence, one of the Florida rescue workers learned he lived just a few blocks away from Mireille Ditmer's son in Pembroke Pines, Florida.

iReport: Looking for loved ones

The rescue operation is dangerous work.

At one point on Sunday, U.S. and Turkish workers ran stumbling and breathless out of the supermarket, after debris began falling on them, as they tunneled towards survivors.

Sunday night's remarkable rescue offered this devastated city a much-needed moment of hope.

Spectators applauded as the Haitian man and woman were whisked away in two waiting ambulances.

Captain Joe Zahralban, of South Florida Urban Search and Rescue, then took a moment to embrace Samer Tahmoush, the manager of the supermarket. The two men had been closely cooperating in their efforts to pinpoint possible pockets of survival within the supermarket.

But their celebration was short-lived.

"I'm happy for the success," Tahmoush said. "But we didn't finish yet. I believe that we have more effort to do. Because I believe that we still have a lot of people inside. And I believe they are alive and still waiting for us."

Not far away, more then 50 relatives and loved ones of those lost in the rubble sat anxiously waiting in the supermarket parking lot.

A Filipino man stood staring at the crushed concrete, waiting for news of his missing wife. A middle-aged Haitian couple wrapped their arms around each other while wearing surgical masks to block the stench of decomposing bodies. Their missing daughter's car has been parked in front of the supermarket every since the tremors struck last Tuesday.

Their agonizing vigil is far from over.