Rescuers were working to extricate a victim from the collapsed remains of the university in Port au Prince when they suddenly heard another voice.
Trapped under multiple collapsed floors and desperately needing medical attention, the woman called out to the rescue personnel – which included a team of GW doctors and volunteers working to free another victim. What followed was a 30-hour successful rescue attempt.
“She was under four stories of collapsed concrete structures in a very tight space,” GW professor Joseph Barbera said.
Barbera – along with Dr. Anthony McIntyre, an associate professor of emergency medicine, and Dr. Bruno Petinaux, an assistant professor of emergency medicine – helped rescue 16 Haitians, including the woman trapped in the university’s remains, after an earthquake with a magnitude of 7.0 tore through the country.
The team communicated with the woman, with the aid of a volunteer Haitian rescue company, then treated her with IVs and pain medications and ultimately freed her.
“She was intermittently lucid and she was very thankful that we were freeing her,” Barbera said.
For more than two weeks, several GW professors combed through the rubble and destruction left by the massive earthquake, searching for survivors trapped in the piles of concrete, glass and steel the quake left in its path.
“It’s almost indescribable,” Barbera said of the wreckage he and a team of doctors, volunteers and aid workers from the Fairfax County Urban Search and Rescue team witnessed during their deployment in Haiti.
“The amount of widespread collapse of buildings over a widespread area is probably beyond anything our task force has worked with,” Barbera said.
In the past, members of the team have deployed to assist in search and rescue efforts around the world, including after the 2004 tsunami in Asia.
The doctors returned from their mission last week, and McIntyre and Petinaux described the experience at an event at the GW Medical Center Monday afternoon.
“The impact of the earthquake sort of affected everything,” McIntryre said.
“It was a major challenge doing simple things, just driving across the city,” McIntyre added.
Using dogs to sniff for life buried beneath the slabs of collapsed concrete, along with listening equipment to locate trapped individuals, the team spent hours extracting victims and treating them for injuries sustained during the violent shock and aftershocks of the earthquake.
“It’s a pretty complex process, but it goes smoothly in most cases because we’ve trained so much,” Barbera said.
McIntyre told The Hatchet that some of the team’s 16 rescues were time-intensive and technically challenging, including the rescue of the woman trapped in the university.
“The primary focus of an urban search and rescue team is the extraction of individuals who are entrapped in enclosed structures,” McIntyre said. “The medical component, which Dr. Petinaux and I were a part of, cares not only for the entrapped individuals, but also the members of the team in what can be a fairly austere environment.”
In the midst of orchestrating rescues of trapped Haitians, the team also had to keep in mind its own safety.
“The safety of the rescuers is paramount and that’s why we wear helmets and goggles or glasses – safety glasses – then also steel-toed boots and gloves, making sure that the rescuers remain healthy and safe,” Petinaux said.
But Petinaux said he was heartened by the courage of the Haitian people, and said their fortitude was a positive among the devastation.
“I think certainly the widespread effort really struck me and the impact that this earthquake had,” Petinaux said. “On the other hand, what really struck me was the resilience of the local population that I was very surprised and very impressed with.”