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21 February 2024

Hope emerges from the ruins of a Haiti supermarket

"Hello," said the rescuer, a simple greeting that belied the enormity of the moment as Maria, Ariel and Lamy were pulled from the debris after surviving more than 100 hours under the rubble -- living off supermarket food.

The trio could not know it, but the torturous route to their salvation after Haiti's catastrophic earthquake had begun two days earlier, thanks to a text message sent to the United Nations.

"Someone sent a text message saying they were inside the Caribbean Market, near the fruit, meat and frozen food aisles," said Joseph Fernandez of South Florida Urban Search and Rescue.

The five-story supermarket, packed with 100-150 people, was just one speck on the horizon of rubble that awaited rescuers from the United States, Turkey and scores of other nations.

But with the aid of that text message, ultra-sensitive microphones and dogged perseverance, engineers, rescuers and other experts were able to hunt-down signs of life beneath the pancaked store.

"It took us 12 hours," said Umut Dingsahin, a Turkish volunteer rescuer at the scene. "During that time we were knocking and they were responding. As we advanced, we began to hear murmurs."

"We are here to save you, where are you?" the team shouted, trying to reach Ariel, aged just seven, Lamy, 34, and 50-year-old Maria.

Then a breakthrough: "I'm seven," responded Ariel, adding that she was stuck next to a dead man, but as fate would have it covered with food.

"All three were surrounded by food, so they could eat," said Fernandez, "so unlike normal in this type of situation we have a great possibility of saving people on the sixth, seventh or eighth day after the disaster."

By early Sunday, the mood at the Caribbean Market had transformed from one of somber determination to laughter and joy-filled relief.

"It was electric when we saw the fruit of our labor, when that little girl came out," said Fernandez, who had also found two other girls trapped in a school.

"There was a silence, everyone was happy," said Turkish architect Zeynep Gul Uma.

The three survivors were exhausted, but lucid, able to answer some questions.

Ariel's mother ran to embrace her daughter, and Fernandez was able to deliver the good news to Maria's son in Florida.

"Hi, you should know your mother is alive," he said by telephone. "You should know that she is okay, she was in the rubble of the supermarket."

"Oh my God!" came the response on the other end of the phone. "I cannot believe it. Thank you. Thank you."

It was just one of the latest stories of hope to emerge from the rubble of Port-au-Prince.

At UN's six story headquarters, where the walls have become a sarcophagus for so many, Dane Jen Kristensen also emerged from the debris on Sunday.

"He came out without a scratch," said a UN spokesman.

UN firefighter Neville Fouche expressed his amazement at the rescue: "Five days after the earthquake! How is it possible? It is simply a miracle," he said.

"Everything was very quiet this morning. And we heard the sound of stone being hit against a wall," says Fouche. From then rescue teams rushed to clear away the rubble, plunging a camera into the revealed a hand, and the first sign of life.

"Do not worry, we'll get you out of there" rescuers said.

Others were less fortunate.

Late on Sunday, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon was to fly back to New York bearing the bodies of some of the 40 UN staffers killed when the UN headquarters collapsed, in what has become the global body's worst tragedy ever.

Elsewhere in this ravaged city rescue workers also faced disappointment.

Belgian and Luxembourg teams have already been recalled, believing they have done all they could to help find survivors, the foreign ministry in Brussels said.

Dutch rescue teams and their sniffer dogs could find no signs of life in the rubble of the Mont-Lazarre slum just outside the capital, forcing residents to abandon the search for survivors and torch the squalid ruins in the hope of stopping disease.

At the Hotel Montana, rumors that a survivor may still be alive were shattered when the body of an American man was pulled out of the site.

Just a week ago the hotel was an idyllic spot for a cocktail at sunset. Sunday's fast-approaching sunset meant only diminished hope that more survivors might be found.


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