Coast Guardsman survives Haiti earthquake

by: Petty Officer 3rd Class Pamela Manns

Cedestinson Ductan landed at Coast Guard Air Station Clearwater, Fla., 72 hours after the earth shook his world apart. Ductan, a U.S. Coast Guard machinery technician assigned to Station New York, was on leave visiting family and friends in his native Haiti when the earthquake hit.

The afternoon of Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2010, Ductan was on the ground floor of a three-story restaurant in Port-au-Prince with his friend Milot Zephir, a Haitian coast guard member he met on a training mission in Virginia in 2008, eating and having a few drinks. When Zephir left the restaurant to get his car, Ductan wandered to the top floor of the restaurant to use the restroom. The quake happened and Ductan never saw his friend again.

Ductan said he felt a force that threw him across the restroom.

“It lasted for a solid 10 seconds, and I could not stand still,” said Ductan, in a voice accented by his homeland. The bathroom windows broke, mirrors fell, and toilets cracked.

Confused by what had just happened, Ductan looked out the bathroom window and saw people screaming, buildings falling, and a man climbing over a pile bricks. Ductan leaned out the window and shouted to the man. He asked what happened and the man shouted back, “An earthquake! If you don’t get yourself out of there, you are going to die.”

“I ran to the bathroom door and it wouldn’t open. I spent 10 minutes trying to kick the door open, and I felt the first aftershock. I thought to myself, ‘this is the day you are going to die.’ And when I broke myself out of the bathroom. The roof had already collapsed,” said Ductan.

Ductan ran toward the bright light in the corner of the building, where the roof had collapsed and sunlight was pouring in, and he jumped through the opening. He landed on the roof of the house next door.

“I looked back and saw one of the waitresses was under a part of the roof. I ran back to help her. I tried to pull the roof off her, but it was too heavy. I called for help. Three men came and tried to free her, but it was too heavy. I felt another aftershock, and we all just ran for our lives,” said Ductan with voice heavy with emotion and his accent deepening with each relayed memory.

Ductan was in shock but knew he had to find his family. He began to run the more than seven miles back to the house where his mother, sisters, brother-in-law, and nieces and nephews were. Along the way, he came across a little girl on the side of the road. Her legs were broken and he stopped to help. Ductan called upon his first-aid training and wrapped her legs with his undershirt. He didn’t know where to take her or how else to help her, and left her on the side of the road. He began to run again and came upon a man with crushed feet.

“I had nothing to help him, nothing,” Ductan said. “I picked him up and carried him to the hospital, but there were already so many hurt people there. I didn’t know what to do. I left him at the entrance.”

“Everywhere I looked, people were dying,” said Ductan. “I thought it was the end of the world or something. I was really scared. My adrenaline was pumping and I wanted to find my mom.”

He finally arrived at his house and it been reduced to a pile of bricks. He said he thought that there was no way his family survived.

“I went through the gate, and there were bricks everywhere,” said Ductan. “I called to my Mama, and she wasn’t there. I called for my sisters and nobody answered. I went to my little sister’s room and the wall that separates her room had collapsed onto her bed. I couldn’t find her. I thought she was dead.”

Night had fallen and the only light source Ductan had was the light from his cell phone. Searching through the fallen bricks, he found his room. He grabbed his passport and some personal things and left the ruins.

“I went onto the street and started to cry,” said Ductan.

He looked back at his destroyed mother’s home, and not knowing where to go, started walking. At 8 p.m., he heard his mother call for him a mile away, and he ran toward her.

“When I got to her, I hugged her,” said Ductan. “She told me that she was alright, and that only my younger sister was hurt with a bump on the head.”

He said his mom, three sisters, brother-in-law, and two nieces and nephew were all right after the earthquake. They slept on the street that night. Ductan said that there were a lot of people crying all around him.

In the morning, Ductan and Wisvelt Azard, his brother-in-law, went back to his mother’s house to see if there were any supplies they could salvage. Along the way they came across people stuck under the rubble. Azard and Ductan started making holes and trying to free them.

They rescued a woman that Ductan had met the day before the quake. On Monday, she gave him directions to the beach. On Wednesday, he found the same woman trapped under a pile of bricks. They freed her and brought her to the hospital at 2 p.m. By 4 p.m., she was dead.

“She looked beaten up. She didn’t look anything like she did on Monday,” recounted Ductan.

Ductan and his family settled themselves in a large camp with hundreds of others. He managed to get a pick-up truck and buy some food and water for the people back at the camp with his vacation money.

He said everything was a mess. By Thursday morning, the smell of death had surrounded the camp. He said it was too much to bear. He moved his family to the far side of the camp. He was running out of money. He began to think that if he got back to the United States, maybe he could help more.

“I was helpless. My head was going crazy,” said Ductan. “I thought if I go to the embassy and explain to them who I was, I could get help.”

Friday, Ductan went to the U.S. Embassy but only to find it overrun with people who wanted out. More than 1,000 U.S. citizens were injured and looking for a flight back to the U.S.

“I went to the airport at 8 a.m., and by 2 p.m., I saw a Coast Guard C-130. I was relieved.”

He got on a Coast Guard C-130 Hercules aircraft from Air Station Clearwater, landed in Fla., and in the following days made it back to his unit, Station New York. Although he sent money back to his mother, Ductan is in constant worry for the family he left behind.

“My mother is very strong, but she is 68-years-old,” said Ductan. “I worry about her.”

His mother is not a U.S. citizen, and he is working with immigration officials to get her a visa. He wants to bring her to the United States.

Born in Port de Paix, Haiti, Ductan moved to the United States at age 24. He said he joined the Coast Guard because the search and rescue mission moved him, and he felt his heart had called him to the lifesaving service.

He said, he is still in shock, and tries not to think about it.

“Sometimes I don’t believe what I saw. It was just a nightmare,” said Ductan.

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