Emily Sharrer, Editor-in-Chief

The Mason students that survived the Jan. 12 earthquake in Haiti, say that for them, luck and coincidences only went so far in returning their group home safely—and then came God.

“We prayed on this trip,” said group leader Mark Cruz, a sophomore conflict analysis and resolution major. “We were just like ‘we want to experience God on this trip’ and I can’t even begin to tell you how much I experienced God firsthand throughout the whole week.”

The eight students were three days into a mission trip with McLean Bible Church’s college ministry called The Gathering when the earthquake hit, severely damaging the control tower at the Port-au-Prince airport and leaving the nation in ruin.

A McLean Bible Church staff member, a Fairfax resident and Thony Querrette, the Haitian World Hope coordinator, also accompanied the students during their trip.

The group had been working with World Hope International, a non-profit organization based in Alexandria, Va., building latrines and running Bible classes for children in the town of Petit-Goave – about 30 miles west of the capital Port-au-Prince and about 15 miles from the epicenter of the 7.0 magnitude earthquake.
The Associated Press currently estimates the death toll at over 150,000.

Jan. 12 began as a normal day for junior biology major Margalit De Gosztonyi, sophomore New Century College member Diana McGeough and senior finance major Maria Arvik. As the boys played soccer at a field outside the church, De Gosztonyi and Arvik headed to the house they were staying at on a former U.N. compound to get a band-aid for a little girl that had cut her finger.

“When Margalit and I first got [to the house] it was kind of crazy because I saw all these lizards running around…so they kind of sensed what was going to happen,” remembers McGeough.

“I turned around to walk back out the door and that’s when it hit,” said De Gosztonyi. “It was shaking just a little bit [at first]. It wasn’t that bad…I thought it was just a truck passing by.”

And then, the shaking intensified. The three girls grabbed onto nearby doorways for support and began to pray out loud.

“I just kept praying and being like ‘God I don’t know what’s happening, if this is an earthquake just save us just please keep us all safe…and if this is a lesson you’re trying to teach us, Lord I pray that we just learn it quick,’” said De Gosztonyi.

“It was weird, because I felt like I was almost on one of those carnival rides that just goes back and forth,” said Arvik of the quake.

After walking out of the house, the girls saw the foot-wide wall surrounding the compound on the ground.
“It felt bad, but not as bad as it actually was,” said De Gosztonyi.

De Gosztonyi and Arvik ran towards the children who were still outside, ushering them to a nearby field away from the buildings in case they collapsed.

“They were all just screaming and crying…there was this 3-year-old just standing there by herself just with her arms up in the air just hysterical, just screaming,” said De Gosztonyi.

“I remember sitting there with the little girls and they kept crying and then after a certain point one of them got up and said ‘let’s go find mom and dad’…She pulled the 3-year-old out of my arms and they all sprinted off and then the aftershock hit. It was just scary to know that they were on their way home. We actually haven’t seen them after that,” said De Gosztonyi.

The group experienced a restless night outside in the field with other community members as the quaking continued and buildings continued to collapse.

“A couple big ones would come and we would hear things just go ‘thud’ and we knew that was a building collapsing,” said Cruz. “We could hear screams all night from outside the compound of people getting freaked out or getting crushed by stuff. It was just a really hard night knowing that we were in a safe compound but the rest of the town right around us was getting completely destroyed. It looked like it got bombed, like a war torn city.”

On Jan. 14, the group planned to pack up and head to Port-Au-Prince to get a flight out of the country, unaware of the magnitude of destruction in the country’s capital city.

After receiving instructions from a contact with World Hope, the group left Jan. 15 by boat to travel to Ile de la Gonave, an island to the northwest of Port-au-Prince in the Gulf of Gonave. Jan. 17, the group departed for Cap Haitien, on the northern edge of Haiti. To get there, the group traveled for over nine hours with over 20 other missionaries.

“We rode in the back of a box truck. We made wooden benches and paint buckets to sit on. It was the most uncomfortable ride ever with 30 plus people,” said Cruz. “We had to ditch most of our luggage back at La Gonave ‘cause we just didn’t have room.”

“It was a diesel truck and all you smelled was gasoline the entire time… It’s all dust too so everybody had their bandanas completely covering their mouth…by the end of it everybody was sick,” added De Gosztonyi.

From Cap Haitien, nearly a week after the earthquake, the group took a flight with three stopovers before arriving to meet family members at Reagan National Airport.

After four days of traveling and sleeping outside on nothing but bed sheets, the four students say they can’t help feeling a culture shock being back in the United States.

“Now we feel spoiled just sitting on couches,” said De Gosztonyi.

Despite the widespread devastation in Haiti, Arvik, McGeough, Cruz and De Gosztonyi say they can’t get back to help the people of Haiti soon enough.

“Still today I want to run back to Haiti. Honestly, I feel like Haiti’s home for me at this point,” said De Gosztonyi.

The students remember their friends in Haiti as non-materialistic and always excited and happy about the simpler joys in life.

“It’s a happy that you don’t experience here in America,” said Cruz. “Just raw happiness not based off a toy or anything, they’re just happy to be alive.”

“I can’t help but feel like we kind of abandoned them. We were able to leave knowing we would come home to our families and we would have food for the next couple days…we still don’t know what happened to the rest of [the Haitians we knew] or if they were okay.”

Members of the group are looking into a spring break or summer trip to Haiti.

In an e-mail sent to the Mason community, Vice President of University Life Sandy Scherrens acknowledged the Mason students who survived the earthquake and talked about the devastation in Haiti.

“The loss of life, injuries and destruction as a result of the earthquake in Haiti saddens all of us,” Scherrens wrote.

Scherrens encouraged students looking to help in the relief efforts to make contributions to the Red Cross or look for more information online.

“Get money over there, don’t ignore it,” said De Gosztonyi. “If you walk away, it’s affecting people whether or not you like it. Just because you chose not to be affected doesn’t mean there’s not a Haitian child not receiving a meal because you chose to walk away.”

For Cruz and De Gosztonyi, telling their story isn’t easy, but it’s something that must be done to raise awareness for Haiti.

“We have to keep talking about it, we have to keep telling our story, we have to make the Haitian people famous in that sense—tell the world about them so they can get the help they need,” said De Gosztonyi.

“In a couple of months remember these people…because it’s easy to care right now for the next 2 weeks, 3 weeks, but we can’t forget,” added Arvik.