PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti, Jan. 23, 2010 -- On Tuesday night, Jan. 12, my children were just sitting down for dinner when I saw an ominous newswire on my Blackberry: "Major earthquake hits Haiti."
I did what we reporters always do. I checked the temperatures (85 degrees, wow), talked to my bosses and threw a bunch of clothes in a suitcase after I got the go-ahead. I kissed my kids and ran out the door to make a flight to Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic at 9 p.m. -- just a few hours after the quake hit. Luckily, I grabbed a small knapsack with hand sanitizer, a pack towel and other assorted supplies that would end up being lifesavers in those initial days.
My 7-year-old son helped me pack my socks. As it would turn out, there were not enough pairs.
On the first day that my producer and I arrived in Port-au-Prince, the stench of death and destruction was overwhelming. It seeps into everything -- your hair, your clothes, your bag, your reporter's notebook.
There are no words to describe some of the things we saw. As a mother, the hardest part was seeing partially draped bodies of children. Or a stray doll tossed in the rubble.
Television video can't possibly capture the enormity of the devastation, the scale of human suffering.
But I could tell stories of individuals, of some of the people who lived in all those shattered homes.
Kevin and Nazer were watching television when the quake hit. A cell phone video shows them dancing around to some kind of rap song. Such cute kids.
We watched for six hours as rescuers from a Miami-Dade search and rescue team went in after them. The homeowner had heard them tapping deep in the rubble.
When we learned that 5-year-old Kevin had already died, I was crushed; I broke down.
But then we saw little Nazer coming out. He was frightened and woefully skinny. He complained that he'd lost his front tooth. But he was alive.
In my broken French I asked "ca va?" -- how are you? -- and Nazer gave a weak thumbs-up.
The next day we went looking for Nazer at the hospital we had heard he was taken to. It was a mess. There is no system of patient registration. The injured are treated inside and then left to fend for themselves in the yard outdoors.
"I mean we're just throwing people anywhere and everywhere," a Canadian aid worker told me.
Search for Bodies, Then Food and Water
When I found Nazer he was baking in the sun, lying on a cot with his injured mother and 3-year-old brother Ricky. This emaciated little man, saved after five days in darkness, had not been given any food since his rescue from the rubble the night before.
"Is this a country?" his mother's friend shouted.
We moved Nazer's bed into the shade. He told me candy is his favorite food, and he likes to go to church. He never once complained. In fact, he smiled and laughed.
With doctors' permission, I ran to the car and grabbed all the food and water we had. His mother accepted it gladly. But I wondered how much longer they would be in this spot.
Every day there were emotional lows and highs.
I watched rescuers run into the hospital with 2-year-old Carla, who was laid out on an old ironing board.
"She's going to be fine," a medic from Miami-Dade told me.
I asked Dan Whu, another Miami-Dade medic, how a baby survives for so long without water and food, in 85-degree temperatures.
"You just gotta ask the man upstairs," he said.
I arrived at the Hotel Montana one day just after rescue workers pulled out Dan Woolley. The American filmmaker had been trapped in an elevator for 65 hours. He had been communicating with a Haitian man trapped in the elevator beside him.
And as rescue worker Carlos Carillo from Fairfax, Va., extracted him, Woolley said simply: "Get 'er done."
"Very lucky. He just happened to be in the right place at the right time when the wall collapsed," Carillo told me.
There are so many families -- Haitians and foreigners -- still missing. This morning Haiti's government said they would suspend search and rescue efforts. That is devastating news for those families that were clinging to hope.
"They belong to somebody. You know?" Lisa Birch told us the other day. "If nothing else, we just want them home. You know, we need to be able to say our good-byes and to touch their faces."
Her husband, Jim, arrived in Haiti on the day of the earthquake. He was helping scout locations for new sports facilities for Haitian children. That Tuesday night he was in the Hotel Montana.
Armchair Used as Makeshift Operating Table
In another part of town, I was able to locate the home of Maude Carnel Dorzil. She was buried alive in the quake. Her son Charles Dorzil was finally able to reach her by cell phone days later.
"She said, 'I'm under the house, I have two floors on top of me. And I can't feel my legs. And I'm hurt, I'm thirsty. Son, I'm dying,'" Charles told us.
By the time we found her house, it was a pile of rubble. Maude had been pulled out by neighbors, but she had a broken leg and they could find no medical help. A broken leg that's all. And she died.
We saw so much need. A courtyard-turned-clinic with an armchair for an operating table. They were using superglue to close wounds. They ran out of sutures.
Life froze when the quake hit. Flower vendors have stalls filled with bouquets that were there before the earthquake. They've only sold two funeral wreaths since that day.
And a blackboard at a kindergarten classroom in Leogane, Haiti, still reads: Tuesday June 12.
We returned several times to a camp in what used to be an open-air market near the hillside slum of Canape Vert, which means "green sofa" in English.
There was at least some progress. By early this week, they had received a huge tank of fresh water, the size of half a tennis court. And Jean, whose eyes had been swollen shut the first time we met him, could now see me.
Children were running around, drumming, growing bored.
"I want to go back to school," one little girl said.
A full week after the quake hit, a young woman asked if we could help her reach her parents in the U.S.
I dialed the number and reached her father's answering machine in Brooklyn.
"I'm here. I'm not dead," she said into the phone.
It's utterly striking how much people have pulled together in the wake of such tragedy. Neighbors are feeding neighbors. Their perseverance is astounding.
Hope and Perseverance Surface After Earthquake
"These are beautiful people. And if there's ever been any controversy about what the people in Haiti are like, erase it from your mind. They are strong. They are kind. They are beautiful," said Michelle Sare, a nurse from Montana.
Dr. Lucento Jeannis is hosting the whole neighborhood in an alleyway outside his nice, but cracked, home.
"How long can you do this?" I asked. He sighed deeply. "I don't know. I don't know."
My favorite image from Haiti is not of death or destruction but of hope. Children gathered around me in the camp, asking to see photos of my own kids. They were bored and this was a bit of entertainment, a respite for a few brief moments.
Leaving Haiti was nothing less than surreal. On Wednesday I boarded a helicopter at what's left of the Dominican embassy in Port-au-Prince. And within an hour and a half I was safely on the ground in Santo Domingo.
It was deeply unsettling to be leaving all that devastation behind.
The first thing my son asked me when I returned home was: "Mommy, how many people did you help?"
I told him that I hoped by telling their stories we've helped a lot. And I hope that -- as our lives move on in the U.S. -- we don't forget about Haiti. They have a long road ahead.