By Maryann Gogniat Eidemiller
Deacon Charles Dietsch had lived in California and knew what was happening when the ground shook in Haiti on Jan. 12.
“It’s an earthquake,” he told Jillian Thorp, acting director of the Diocese of Norwich (Conn.) Haitian Ministries’ center in Port-au-Prince. “Don’t worry about it.”
He pulled her under a doorway, expecting the tremor to pass, but within 20 seconds the walls split and the three-story building went tumbling down.
When the earth stopped shaking, they were in total darkness, pinned under two stories of rubble that covered them with 6 feet of concrete.
Deacon Dietsch, 66, was face up and unable to move anything but his head and right hand. Thorp was wedged face down and partially on top of him, and able to move an arm and her legs.
“We should have died instantly,” he told Our Sunday Visitor. “But we didn’t.”
Deacon Dietsch — known as Deacon Chuck — has been a permanent deacon in the Archdiocese of Hartford, Conn., for 25 years. He is the pastoral associate for social outreach ministries with Sacred Heart Church, in Southbury, where he lives, and works for Haitian Ministries. He had arrived five days earlier to begin three months of work at the mission house. He and his wife, Dorne, had been in Haiti several times, the first in 2005 when they were part of a cultural immersion retreat.
“It was my love of the people that made me want to go back,” he said. “I had a true feeling that God wanted me to be in Haiti, and to use my gifts and talents to aid the plight of the Haitian people.”
His wife planned to join him Feb. 9, and they were talking on the phone minutes before the earthquake hit at 4:55 p.m.
Thorp, 23, has a degree in foreign affairs, global affairs and democracy and conflict resolution. She was new to the position at the center, but had been on several mission trips to Haiti. Her husband, Frank, a freelance journalist, was on assignment at a salt mine 100 miles north of the capital city.
“I was in total disbelief and shock,” Thorp told OSV. “I couldn’t believe we were trapped. My heart was racing trying to figure this out, and I had to slow down and get a grip on the situation.”
There was nothing either could do, so they prayed for God to still the earth, and they prayed for other people.
“I knew that there were thousands and thousands of people in the same dire circumstances, and the chances of our being discovered, and the chances of our survival were just about none,” Deacon Dietsch said.
He was filled with sadness that he would never again see his wife, nor their two sons and six grandchildren. But he had a sense of peace about dying.
“I know for a fact that I am not afraid of death,” he said. “I’m not scared to die and to be with God — as I should be at some point in time.”
Then a phone rang.
Thorp managed to get her cell phone out of her pocket.
“We are both alive and we are both injured,” she told the caller. “If we don’t get help soon, we will die.”
She instructed the friend to relay messages. Through a network of calls, Frank Thorp learned that his wife was alive, and he left for Port-au-Prince.
Thorp got another call, though she could not call out. Then, before the cell phone batteries died, its light enabled them to see that they were in a compartment about 4 feet by 6 feet. There was concrete 6 inches above them, and a beam across Deacon Dietsch’s chest.
He saw just a speck of light in the darkness. That meant they had air. Then one of the many aftershocks shifted the concrete, and it was gone.
“I knew we had limited time, and one of my fears was that we would suffocate,” he said. “I was fearful, too, that an aftershock could shift our environment and crush us.”
They stayed calm and prayed that someone would find them, even though they knew that the center was surrounded by a locked fence. Two hours after the building collapsed, they heard a helicopter, then a voice. Thorp yelled and pounded on the ceiling above them.
Ti-Ton, the center’s security guard, heard her and called out in Creole, “You’re there! You’re there!” He brought back two men, Milot, who worked in the house, and Dominique Georges, the center’s assistant director, who speaks English.
“Our prayers went from despair and hopelessness to now we have hope,” Dietsch said. “We prayed that God would guide these men’s hands and give them the strength to do what they needed to do.”
The three men dug with their bare hands and makeshift tools, guided by Thorp telling them where they were, and Georges translating.
“We were both in pain,” Deacon Dietsch said. “It was so severe that my body went into shock, and I was shaking and couldn’t stop. I prayed for God to ease the pain.”
He and Thorp worked together to shift under the crushing weight and to keep their circulation going, but the compression on his muscles, compounded by dehydration, sent his kidneys into failure. He felt dizzy and feared that they were running out of air. At one point, he considered just drifting off to sleep and dying.
The three men had Thorp nearly uncovered by the time her husband arrived with medical students from Johns Hopkins University, who were doing research in Haiti. He burst into tears when he saw her hand come through the rubble. “I love you!” he sobbed.
“I love you, too,” she told him firmly, “but you need to hold together. I’m the one in the hole, and you need to get me out.”
She was hyperventilating when they pulled her out, and she collapsed into Frank’s arms.
It took another hour to free Deacon Dietsch, and strong arms carried him to the driveway. He lay on his back and spent the night staring at the heavens and marveling at the stars, and his heart broke listening to the wailing around him. There were so many dead.
The tremors continued through the night, and when dawn broke, he could see the destruction around him.
They were taken to the U.S. Embassy where he and the Thorps were cleared for transport to a hospital in the Dominican Republic. On Thursday, they were back home.
Both suffered serious scrapes, cuts and bruises. Deacon Dietsch had nerve damage in his back, and his hand required surgery.
“I knew that God was with us in those 10 hours, just like he was with every Haitian that day, regardless of if they lived or died,” Thorp said. “I am going to go back as soon as possible. The goal is not to build Haiti back up like it was before, but to make Haiti better. It will take years, maybe decades.”
He also will return to continue his work.
“There are many reasons why Jillian and I should have died, and our story is truly a miracle,” he said. “But the real story is about the people of Haiti who are surviving. My fear is that the interviewers will go away and Haiti will be forgotten. They need the international community to recognize them as a viable nation that wants to be respected, that needs a hand up, not a handout. They are such a faithful, loving, caring people.”
He knows that from experience. Three men could have left the rubble and not even tried digging them out with their bare hands. But they stayed.
“I was in Haiti, trying to help them,” he said, “and I owe my life to three Haitian men who could have easily walked away.”
Maryann Gogniat Eidemiller writes from Pennsylvania.
“Haitian Ministries has a commitment for a permanent presence in Haiti. Although our mission house was destroyed, we remain partnered with many Haitians, in orphanages, food programs, a scholarship program, medical missions and about a half-dozen parishes in and around Port-au-Prince. We will continue to support our Haitian staff and all partners. Until we can re-establish a mission house, we will have a temporary base of operations. There are many challenges ahead, but after 25 years in Haiti, we are only more inspired by their perseverance, hope and faith.”
— Kyn Tolson, director of Norwich Haitian Ministries