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Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Buried for 27 days: Haiti earthquake survivor's amazing story

Trapped in the rubble for one month after Haiti's massive earthquake, Evans Monsignac thought he was dead. Here the man thought to be the longest-ever earthquake survivor talks exclusively to Jacqui Goddard.

Evans Monsignac : Buried for 27 days: Haiti earthquake survivor's  amazing story
Evans Monsignac survived 27 buried underneath earthquake rubble, in Port-au-Prince, Haiti Photo: POLARIS

For the last 10 weeks, Evans Monsignac has struggled to understand how and why he is still alive. So remarkable is his survival, that at times it has been easier for him to think that he must in fact be dead.

Severely malnourished, dehydrated, deeply traumatised and with festering wounds, the frail slum-dweller's survival was hailed a miracle when he emerged after an extraordinary 27 days trapped in the ruins of Haiti's earthquake, confounding doctors and defying medical logic. It is believed to be the longest anyone has endured such an ordeal.

Now recovering in a US hospital, he has spoken for the first time of his horrific ordeal, sharing haunting memories that until now have been locked away in his head.

"I still don't understand how I'm here," he admitted, his skeletal body resting limply in an intensive care bed at Tampa General Hospital, Florida. "I was resigned to death. But God gave me life. The fact that I'm alive today isn't because of me, it's because of the grace of God. It's a miracle, I can't explain it."

Mr Monsignac, 27, a father of two, was the last person found alive under the debris after an earthquake levelled Port-au-Prince on Jan 12. His relatives say simply that someone, they do not know who, came across him while working through the rubble on Feb 8 and rushed him, delusional and rambling, to an emergency clinic.

Even his name was a mystery, variously recorded by medics as Evans Monsigrace, Evans Muncie and Evan Ocinia. A plastic hospital bracelet on his bony left wrist spells it out correctly now.

Countering speculation that he must have had access to food and clean water while trapped, he shook his head. "No," he said emphatically, and no one else was involved in his epic struggle for survival; just himself and God. He was pinned by concrete slabs, saw nobody and heard only the screams of the dying. "I had no contact with anybody. None. Nobody bought me anything," he insisted.

The appalling reality, he said, is that he survived by sipping sewage that oozed underneath the rubble of the marketplace where he was buried, a place where sanitation was lacking even before the earthquake.

"It was trickling past where I was lying.I felt it under my body," he saids. He shifted his right arm weakly on the bed, turning his empty palm upwards and forming it into a scoop before raising it towards his mouth to demonstrate how he collected and drank the foul liquid.

Even before the earthquake struck, killing an estimated 230,000 people, injuring 300,000 and rendering one million homeless, life had been a struggle for Mr Monsignac, a dirt-poor market vendor who scratched a living selling rice and cooking oil.

On the day disaster struck, he had woken at 5am at his home in Portail St-Joseph - a slum where he lived with his mother Jeanne Edmond Monsignac, his wife Gerline, 20, daughter Keline and son Michael, both aged four - and caught a bus to La Saline marketplace, where he set up under an awning.

"As soon as I finished selling the last batch of rice the earthquake happened. Suddenly things were just flying all over and flattening me," he recalls. "I said 'Oh Lord, I'm dying.' I tried to turn to the right, but I was pinned down by rock, I tried to turn to the left, I was pinned down with rock."

Looking up, he saw a slab of debris thundering towards him as buildings collapsed on the market. "A piece of concrete was falling to my face but then it was like someone came and pulled it back. I don't know if it was God, if it was a snake," he said, referring to the Haitian voodoo snake spirits.

"This piece just stopped above me. But still I couldn't move. I heard so many screams all over, people screaming loudly. I just lifted up my eyes and prayed because I couldn't understand what was going on."

The exact details of what happened over the next 27 days remain a mystery, registering as only a blur in Mr Monsignac's traumatised mind as he drifted in and out of consciousness inside his precariously-formed tomb, losing all concept of time.

"I'm lying on my back. I was so scared because if I turn one way I will get hurt and if I turn another way I get hurt. If I move it will bring death. So I lay straight," he told The Sunday Telegraph.

"I didn't think of anything, just death. I could smell death from others - there were a lot of people under the rubble with me but the screaming was one day only. Then it was was dark all the time. Every time I came out of consciousness I prayed, I prayed that God would rescue me, give me life.

"I thought I was dead. I was in shock. On the second day, maybe the third day, I realised I seemed to be alive and I saw this water. I was hungry and thirsty and I tried to drink something but it was making me sick in my belly. I would take my little finger and wet my lips and swallow it, but the sicker I got as time went on."

He recalls nothing of his rescue, of feeling the sunlight on his face for the first time in nearly a month as he was finally discovered and taken first to a Salvation Army medical centre and then to a field hospital run by the University of Miami before being treated aboard the USS comfort hospital ship and then flown here to Tampa on February 21.

"The only thing I can remember is thinking 'I'm free, I'm not dying,'" he said.

His lanky frame is stick thin - he weighed just 40kgs (88lbs) when he was admitted, having shed 27kgs (60lbs) during his ordeal - and his bones bulge below his papery brown skin. His right forearm bears deep red sores, and his fingernails are stained with dried blood from scratching at them.

His eyes are lifeless and he stares blankly for much of the time at a television mounted high on the wall in his room, watching the images but understanding nothing of the words.

Despite being severely dehydrated when he was found, his survival without any damage to his kidneys is considered remarkable.

"He calls himself a miracle? He's right," says Dr David Smith, medical director of Tampa General's burns centre, where Mr Monsignac has undergone skin grafts on his wounds. He is also receiving painkillers through an intravenous line and drugs to deal with gastro-intestinal troubles including diarrhea and cramping. Remarkably for someone who endured such severe dehydration, his kidney function is normal.

"We don't know what happened during those 27 days but his story isn't unbelievable," said Dr Smith.

Mr Monsignac likes chocolate milk and had just nibbled a piece of toast and a boiled egg, but has mostly been rejecting food, despite special menus rustled up by a Haitian cook in the hospital kitchens. He is still "desperately malnourished", said his doctor, "His major problem is nutrition," Dr Smith explained.

"If he was from the US we would put a tube down his nose to feed him, but in Haitian culture if they have a tube like that it implies that they are going to die. When he first came in, we put 12 tubes in him in eight hours and he pulled them all out, screaming from the psychological trauma."

He is also suffering from post-traumatic shock, sometimes melting down into fits of screaming. He periodically moans and turns his head on the pillow, calling to nurses for more painkillers, or drawing his blanket over his head and retreating.

Yet his current state of mind is an improvement compared to when he first arrived here, one of 62 Haitian earthquake victims treated at Tampa General. Plucked from one of the world's poorest countries and a life of destitution, the transition to a modern, high-tech American hospital where doctors and nurses move around him in surgical masks and gowns has been overwhelming.

"The problem with these patients is they are all terrified," sdaid Dr Smith. "They have had a horrific experience. When Evans arrived he was convinced that his mother had sold him to white slave traders and he was going to be a slave for the rest of his life. He didn't see us as medical people trying to help him."

Reverend Celillon Alteme, the hospital's chaplain, is Haitian and has befriended Mr Monsignac, helping to breach the culture differences and language barrier. At times, he said, Mr Monsignac "thought the doctors and nurses were going to kill him."

"He wanted to die. We had to talk with him gently, we assured him it was safe," he added.

Mr Monsignac has weeks of treatment ahead of him, but fantasises about rejoining his family in Haiti and starting life afresh.

When The Sunday Telegraph found them living under tarpaulins in a ruined factory, they were overjoyed to hear the details of Mr Monsignac's recovery. They have been in sporadic telephone contact with him and know that he is anxious to leave hospital as soon as possible. "He wants to see his family but I want him to say until he gets strong," his mother said.

They had given up hope of his survival, and only learnt afterwards that he had been rescued in a phone call from friends. Marie Monsignac, his elder sister, said: "We were happy because we didn't know if he had died!"

Mr Monsignac said: "I'm feeling helpless. I'm the only breadwinner in the family. My children are on the streets. They are very sad, they are hungry. If they could understand I would tell them 'Have courage. One day we will be together again.'"

If his ordeal taught him anything, it is that hope springs eternal, he says, adding: "Those who are sick should have the courage to live and pray to God, and those who are healthy need to cherish their life and to pray. Now I know that I must live life to the best I can each day."