Girl, 8, recalls 12-hour ordeal

(This story was originally published November 10, 2008.)

PETIONVILLE, Haiti -- The school bell had just sounded, officially putting an end to the game of hide-and-seek, when 8-year-old Murielle Esta noticed the blocks of cement falling from the sky.

"Rocks, rocks, rocks are falling, " she told the school's director.

Instead of sending Murielle and her classmates to safety, however, School Director Jimmy Antoine ordered them back to class. Before she could make it up the stairs, her archaically built three-story school building collapsed.

Murielle would remain trapped for 12 hours beneath piles of cement from a collapsed wall near the staircase -- and two dead classmates -- before a Good Samaritan eventually pulled her out of the rubble amid her desperate pleas for God to "please save me, please save me."

As Murielle recalled the horrifying tragedy Sunday from her hospital bed, both of her legs were wrapped in bandages and her right arm was also taped up. She moaned and cried "Papi! Papi!" from the excruciating pain.

Leonard Esta, an unemployed construction worker, tried desperately to console his daughter, all the while mourning the loss of his other child, 6-year-old son Ostevé.

The boy, who also attended the school, made it out alive but eventually died at a local hospital. Esta has yet to tell Murielle, saying he wants to spare her any more grief. Adding to his fears, he said, is that doctors have told him that despite an operation to save Murielle's swollen legs, she could still lose them.

"That is a load I cannot carry, " he said, breaking into tears.

After spending all night searching for more survivors in the rubble of the collapsed College La Promesse Evangelique in this Port-au-Prince suburb and then chasing false rumors Sunday of trapped victims calling relatives on their cellphones, emergency workers moved into recovery mode.


The decision was a recognition that after nearly 72 hours there was little hope of finding any more children or teachers alive in the tragedy that had already claimed 89 lives and injured 150 teachers and children, including 8-year-old Murielle.

"We don't want to risk the life of the population or the rescue workers, " said Haitian President René Préval as he was being briefed by rescue workers from the United States and Martinique. "But the more time that passes, the less time we have of finding anyone alive."

The decision to begin the recovery came amid growing frustrations from angry residents who tried to push past United Nations peacekeepers in riot gear.

Residents in the area complained that the effort was taking too long, and they should be allowed in to find their children -- dead or alive.

At one point, the residents hung a sign saying, "These are our children, " and later another, saying, "Give Haitians a chance. The task is tremendous. It's a catastrophe. Please."

There are likely to be more victims, but excavating deeper into the collapsed school has proven tricky.


Disaster experts on the scene say the main obstacle to reaching deep into the rubble is a large, collapsed beam in the rear of the school.

And on Sunday, winds from Tropical Storm Paloma in the Caribbean were causing vibrations and increasing fears that there could be a secondary collapse of the building and that the chances of finding anyone alive would diminish.

"The biggest issue is the large slab. We need to figure out a way to save it or take parts of it away, " a member of the Fairfax County, Va., rescue team told the president. "It's going to be quite difficult and dangerous."

With help of teachers, the team had drawn a map of the building and said they have been checking pockets. They have even called some of those believed trapped on their cellphones -- but have gotten no answer. But every check costs time in the recovery, they said.

"We have to work faster, " a member of the Martinique brigade said, joining his American colleagues in asking the politically delicate question of whether rescuers should stop looking for survivors and begin the recovery phase.

Préval left the decision to his minister in charge, emphasizing the primary objective is to find as many people alive as possible but at the same time he agreed that the process has to move faster.

On Sunday, authorities also launched their investigation into what happened, questioning the owner of the school, whom residents say also lived inside the building with his wife and children.

Leonard Esta and others in the school's vicinity paint a portrait of an "ambitious man" who continued to add floors and rooms to the school without any regard to the safety of the children.

For instance, one reason why authorities still do not know how many children were in the school is because Fridays are what the school calls "Color day" when students are allowed to trade in their gray uniforms for jeans and polo shirts. But to participate, students must pay a fee. Because of that, some suspect all 700 children may not have attended school that day.

Esta said when he could not pay the $312 for both Murielle and her brother last month, for instance, the pastor sent the children home, telling Esta he needed to pay for them to attend school. Esta, who says he chose the school because it was more affordable than others, borrowed the money from friends.

"Even if it means I can only own a single pair of pants, it's important for me to make sure that my children can attend school, " he said. "The hope that I have is tomorrow, they could help me get, five pairs, 10 or even a dozen. All of my sacrifice in life is for my children, to school them and help them advance."

Esta himself pulled seven children from the rubble -- three of them dead -- by the time he found Murielle. He had all but given up hope, he said, when the Good Samaritan, Ronaldo Charilus, told him they had found the girl.

Charilus said Murielle was in an extreme amount of pain and at one point asked for a cookie, as rescuers discussed what to do about her legs. A Brazilian peacekeeper suggested cutting it, in order to save her, but he stood firm and said no.

"I said cutting her feet was not an option and that she had all of the chance in the world to survive with her feet intact, " he recalled. "They told me, 'No, there wasn't a chance.' I told them if they cut her feet off, we were going to fight. They asked who am I? I said I am a citizen of this country, and I love my country."

Charilus took a knife and cut off Murielle's shoes. Then he and another volunteer poured oil and grease down her legs and pulled her out.

Charilus, who is going on his fourth day without sleep and without going home, said he didn't get involved with the rescue operation for pay or glory -- or because he knew any of the victims.


When President Préval chatted with him earlier in the day, he told him the only thing he wanted as gratitude "was a piece of paper so that I can go to Canada, or Martinique or Guadeloupe for six months or a year to study. I want to serve my country."

After saving Murielle on Friday night, he would later save 2-year-old Jerry Corilan, who remains until now the last person to make it out alive from the building.

"Murielle and Jerry are two miracles, " said Charilus.

Leonard Esta was happy for that miracle. Even as he wondered how he would cope with a child possibly losing her legs, he gave praise to God and Charilus.

"I had given up all hope of finding her, " he said.