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Responding to the Haiti earthquake

It began as an ordinary day as most big news stories usually do.

I was at my desk on Jan. 12, 2010, planning a weekend vacation to Haiti to attend the upcoming Port-au-Prince International Jazz Festival while simultaneously conducting email interviews about the latest Haiti issue ruffling the feathers of the international community.

I had just sent a follow-up email to a Haitian government official when an editor rushed over and shouted, “Jacquie, an earthquake just hit Haiti!”

What happened next was what makes this newsroom great, and what has become the trademark of Herald journalists: Everyone drops what they’re doing to help get crucial information to readers. Within minutes, practically every reporter and photographer was working on this story: making calls to sources, posting updates on our website, searching for flights to get to Haiti. In the midst of reporting, I was also busy with radio and TV interviews.

With phone lines jammed or out-of-service, and no idea of the magnitude of the disaster, I was finally able to get in touch with my friend and sometimes stringer Jean Cyril Pressoir. I opened my Rolodex, entrusted him with numbers and deputized him to begin calling people on my behalf to help us put together that first day’s story.

By 3 a.m., nearly 12 hours after the 35-second quake struck at 4:53 p.m., I was at the Opa-locka airport preparing for a charter flight. We would finally take off after 10 a.m. and only after I finally succeeded in getting President René Préval on the cellphone as he and his wife were stepping over the dead at the collapsed parliament building,

“When are you coming?” he asked, his voice pleading for help.

“As soon as you give us permission to land; we need permission to land,” I said.

“You can land,” he said.

Then he uttered the words that would later be flashed across TV and website screens across the world with the Miami Herald credit line: “The country is destroyed.”

No one could have been prepared for the dreadful impact of those 35 seconds, which killed more than 300,000 people. When I finally arrived in Haiti shortly before noon, it was as if a nuclear bomb had been dropped. The sky was gray; the mood eerie. Everyone seemed dazed as they waited for help, struggling to comprehend what had happened.

As we rode through the streets, the scene was the same everywhere: bodies wrapped in white sheets on the sidewalks, men and women covered in dust begging for help. Others carried the injured on cardboard and wooden planks over their head.

When we finally made it to our destination — the Villa Creole hotel in Petionville — a new human drama awaited us. The hotel was standing, partially, but its parking lot had been transformed into something out of a World War movie: bodies, living and dead, spread on the ground, as cries for help pierced the air. The doctors and nurses weren’t trained in any medical school, but rather hotel guests, staff and owners who had in that instance turned to what little first-aid training they knew to try and relieve the suffering.

This was the power of Haiti’s most devastating 35 seconds in history, and of the worst disaster in this hemisphere: ordinary Haitians and well-meaning strangers working together to save a life.