Lorie Johnson had led four-year-old orphan Atanie into school Monday at a mountainside orphanage near Port-au-Prince, Haiti, when the little girl bolted from the classroom, sprinted back outside and bounded up into her arms.
"She told me she loved me," Johnson said. She was hoping to adopt Atanie. Then, as always, Johnson told Atanie she was "her princess" and sent her smiling back inside.
The brief, touching exchange took place less than 48 hours before the city of Port-au-Prince and the orphanage were flattened in the most catastrophic earthquake the area has seen in two centuries. When the school collapsed, everyone rushed to get out.
Atanie was the only one who didn't make it.
"It's hard to see somebody hours earlier, seeing them happy and healthy, then having someone come and tell you they're crushed, they're dead," Johnson said.
Johnson had flown home to Knoxville, Tenn., Monday afternoon. When she heard about the quake Tuesday evening, she said she could feel tragedy coming.
"Tuesday was filled with anguish. I had a bad feeling something was wrong; somehow our girls weren't OK," Johnson said of Atanie and the other girls her church group sponsored at the school.
It was a late-night knock at her door that confirmed Atanie's fate. Two people from the church group broke the news. Atanie was running down the stairs between the first and second floors when everything came down.
Johnson didn't ask for any more details. She said she didn't want to know.
Adopting the girl had been "kind of what our plans were when I got back this week," Johnson said. "But we never got that far."
Two Years of Family, Solace in Her Story
Johnson started sponsoring Atanie in May 2008 through her church and visited the girl in Haiti for the first time that month.
"At the time she was very, very small, very malnourished and had only been at the orphanage for a couple of months -- skin rashes, very bad," Johnson said. "Her hair was bad from malnutrition and falling out."
Atanie's stomach was filled with intestinal worms, causing the girl to vomit frequently.
Johnson, who already had two children of her own, made sure Atanie got proper medical and dental care and visited the girl several times. She spoke to Atanie weekly, but the girl really loved talking to Johnson's 4-year-old daughter, Emmaline.
"We decided to be her family here in America ... over the past two years she came a long way," Johnson said. "Hair was growing, skin was clean and clear. She was free of all parasites."
Johnson's husband, Darrell, took his first trip to see Atanie in December, and the couple were planning to start the adoption process sometime after Johnson's latest trip to Haiti that ended Monday.
"I spent the previous week with her. ... She was very excited for me to come," Johnson said. "She got to spend the last night with me there. We had a great night just playing.
"Before she went to bed, she told me she wanted to come here [to Knoxville] and sleep where my kids do."
Johnson said she was "empty" after learning of Atanie's fate.
"I've been frustrated. ... Of course, I wanted to know why she's the only one or why it happened this way," she said. "I've had more understanding since, trying to tell myself that it's happened for a reason."
The only solace she had, she said, was that Atanie was not in the midst of the chaos in Haiti.
"At least she's not down there going through this, scared at night and not knowing where she's going to live," she said.
Johnson has since worked to honor Atanie's legacy by telling her story and not letting her be one in a statistic. She plans to return to Haiti to help the orphanage recover.
"I'm very grief-stricken and sad that I've lost her," Johnson said. "[But] in the light of it all, I think that there's a little girl that's smiling down now who no one knew her name last week."
Click here to learn more about efforts to rebuild Atanie's orphanage.