Frisco man returns home after surviving Haiti earthquake
January 16, 2010
FRISCO – Jim Gulley sat calmly in his living room Saturday afternoon with his white MacBook open on the coffee table. A few days earlier, the blood-spattered laptop was used to help prop up his boss, Sam Dixon, who was suffering from broken legs in the dusty, pitch-black conditions of a collapsed Haitian hotel.
The two were among about eight people to endure 55 hours in the remains of the four-story Hotel Montana in Port-au-Prince before rescue. Dixon died before he could be freed.
Some 300 people were believed to be inside the 145-room hotel when it caved in, and 200 were missing or feared dead after Tuesday’s 7.0 magnitude earthquake hit at about 5 p.m., according to a report in USAToday.
As of Saturday, the death toll was at 50,000 but expected to reach as high as 200,000.
Gulley, 64, is an international missionary and minister. He was in the impoverished Caribbean country to work on humanitarian development with United Methodist Committee on Relief.
He and other UMCOR representatives were meeting with folks from IMA World Health regarding a partnership.
“We were going to meet for dinner,” he said.
A couple of people were introduced to each other in the lush, art deco Hotel Montana lobby. Three seconds later – darkness.
“I looked up and saw things shaking,” Gulley said. “The third second, the whole thing caved in; it was all cement.”
He and four others were confined to an area about 3-feet high, 8-feet long and 8-feet wide. A reception desk prevented the debris from crushing them.
Gulley said there was a bleeding “divot” in his head likely caused by fallen ceiling matter. His hands were cut and his ankle banged up, but he told the others he was OK.
He and the others used their computer bags and some ceiling tiles to try to make Dixon – an estimated 6-foot, 2-inches tall, 350-pound man – more comfortable. Dixon was the top executive with UMCOR.
With a number of people in a tight space, fresh air was one of the first concerns. But coolness under an edge of the debris offered reassurance they weren’t going to suffocate.
The “most frightening thing” was feeling the aftershocks, he said, without knowing whether they would cause the debris to shift and crush them.
He could hear a man named Dan yelling from the elevator. The two didn’t know each other before the quake, but the man turned out to be Dan Woolley, 39, a website specialist from Colorado Springs who was in Haiti with Compassion International.
A friend nearby said her ribs were hurting. The only light came from cell phones.
The survivors yelled to each other through the darkness, among an unknown number of lifeless bodies.
They got to know each other, prayed, sang songs.
Gulley recalled quoting the “Monte Python and the Holy Grail” scene in which a man insists, “I’m not dead.”
“All in good spirits,” he said.
Hotel Montana was one of the most prestigious hotels in the country, and it was expected help would come soon.
Tuesday night passed with no sign of rescuers. As Wednesday began, a couple of helicopters were heard. In the morning, the survivors heard a tapping sound. Some Haitians outside responded to calls for help.
“They went away,” Gulley said. “It gave us a lot of hope.”
But the day turned to night.
“We said, ‘We’re going to be here another night,'” Gulley said, adding that certain bodily functions began to affect the situation.
One of the men explained that “studies show people who drink urine survive longer than people who don’t,” Gulley said, so they saved and drank their own urine.
People were growing “a little discouraged,” speculating on why it was taking rescuers so long.
Gulley became choked up as he described how they explained to one another the messages they wanted sent to their families if they died.
He said people feared that trying to move much debris could cause it to shift and crush more people. A woman nearby was contemplating trying to move through a broken window to see whether there was some sort of escape route.
But 30 minutes later, French firefighters came to the rescue.
The survivors sang a Christian hymn, “The Doxology,” as the firefighters cut through walls of material to clear the way to them.
Gulley said they were in “such a precarious place” that they had to be dragged out one-by-one on their backs. Bottles of water were passed in to them as they waited.
Gulley, who weighs about 175 pounds, said it was not so easy for the firefighters to extricate the larger men. It was the last time he would see Dixon alive.
Four hours later, Gulley was on a stretcher beneath the night sky.
He was home in Frisco with his wife Nancy, son Aaron and other family by Friday night.
“I’m in good shape,” Gulley said, “compared to so many other people – my colleague who lost his legs and the other who lost his life.”
Gulley has made trips to Haiti since September 2007, and he has every intention of returning.
He said the people are “very warm, friendly, outgoing” and “very exuberant.”
“I’ll do some reflection on this about how to finish the work we started,” he said.
The UMCOR organization works to help educate children and improve quality of life, among other endeavors.
Gulley said he’s optimistic that a history of corruption and extreme poverty can end as people unify to rebuild their country.
“Out of every situation, good things can come in spite of bad things that have happened,” Gulley said.
He added that “Haiti will never change until there are new leaders.”
“Perhaps that will be one of the first steps in a new day for Haiti,” Gulley said.
Gulley plans to visit Cambodia in mid-February – as he had scheduled before the earthquake – for further humanitarian work.
He said that while trapped in the debris, it was sad to think that one had experienced all he would ever experience, but that he was calm because “I haven’t missed anything.”
“I’m grateful for the experiences I’ve had,” he said.
The MacBook, which was under Dixon for 55 hours, endured no damage beyond a small crack on the bottom side.
Robert Allen can be contacted at (970) 668-4628 or firstname.lastname@example.org.