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Safe at home: Men return to county after facing horrors in Haiti

Photo by Tori Boone

Photo by Tori Boone

COVINGTON -- Roger Hall and Butch Lee have been through hell, but their eyes were turned toward heaven all the while.

The two men, along with 13 others, were on a mission trip to Haiti when a magnitude-7.0 earthquake hit on Jan. 12, leaving death and destruction in its wake. Their survival comes down to a set of very fortunate circumstances. Whether through divine intervention or pure luck, they're happy to be alive and committed to helping the people of Haiti more than ever.

"Life is short. Sometimes in just a few seconds, life can change dramatically. Something I never thought possible has happened: that Haitians, who were the poorest of the poor, could have less than what they had before," Lee said.

Sandy Creek Baptist Church in Madison has been sending mission teams to Haiti since 1984 to try and help improve conditions and spread God's word.

Lee, who is pastor of the church, is also vice president of Grace Mission to Haiti, which has 29 churches with 6,000 members and three schools with some 3,000 students in the country.

This go round, Sandy Creek Baptist sent 15 missionaries, ranging in age from 20 to 82, to build a church and complete Grace Center, a guest house for mission teams and site for ministerial training, located in a mountainous region. Hall was the only Newton County resident on the trip.

They arrived on Jan. 9 at their compound, Villa Mamika, at the edge of Port-au-Prince.

They worshiped with the Haitians on Sunday and set to work Monday. By Tuesday morning, they were building the rafters of the church when Lee realized he had miscalculated the amount of materials needed.

The men planned to take two days to complete the church anyway, and intended to go back to the compound, rest and head back Wednesday morning. But on this day, the locals were able to get the additional materials up the narrow mountain roads in very quick time.

Lee decided they should stay and try to finish the job in one day. The men had left their extra hand drills back at the compound, and had only two with which to screw on the tin roof, delaying them further.

They finished up at about 4:30 p.m., and entered the church for a dedication ceremony. It was during a prayer that life, as Lee said, would change dramatically.

"The ground rolled like an ocean wave under our feet and shook so violently back and forth it was hard to stand," Lee said.

"I likened it to a mighty, mighty waterfall. There was just so much noise, it was deafening. Some of the other men likened it to a freight train," Hall added.

The group ran for the exit and all made it out safely. The quake ended shortly after they got outside, and they stood and watched the newly constructed building rock back and forth.

At that time, the men thought the quake was isolated in the mountains. But making their way down the mountain, they began to realize the devastating impact to the rest of the island.

About 1/4 of a mile from where they had been working, a Pentecostal Church had been totally destroyed. Then, they started seeing boulders, some nearly as large as their van, in the middle of the road.

"If we'd finished early enough to be on that road when the earthquake took place ... instead of 15 evacuees, we'd have 15 fatalities," Lee said.

Darkness was falling as the men entered the city, its citizens aimlessly wandering the streets in panic and confusion. As they saw the destruction, they began to worry about their compound and their safety. They had been warned not to be out after dark to avoid the criminal element that might target foreigners. With the city now in chaos, they wondered how they would make it through the night if the compound was destroyed. But when they arrived, it was still standing.

"Around us is devastation and destruction and the compound we're staying in is not compromised ... Again, that shows God's grace and mercy to look after us and keep us safe," Hall said.

They managed to find another missionary who could still send text messages on her phone and they sent a quick message to the church saying they were OK.

By Wednesday morning, the men knew they had to get out of the country for their safety. But in the meantime, they went out to survey the damage and try to help.

What they saw was hard to believe: Buildings and homes reduced to rubble; the wall where the town market was located totally collapsed, bodies trapped underneath. The presidential palace was destroyed, but locals were heading to a courtyard there en masse, having nowhere else to go and not knowing what else to do.

"Our driver rolled the window down and said, 'Do you smell that? This is not good. We need water and we need bathrooms.' The smell was people using the bathroom right where they were. It was horrible. They had nowhere to go," Hall said.

The stench was also coming from the bodies still trapped and those being piled on the street and covered with sheets and towels.

"Many of these people who were pulling bodies out had no idea who they were but a lot of them were families pulling out family members," Hall said.

Lee thinks death toll estimates have been low -- he believes at least 300,000 to 400,000 perished.

"We saw 100,000 (dead bodies) on the side of the street, it seemed like," he said.

On Thursday, the group began heading toward the American Embassy. By that time, looting and violence was rampant.

Still, the men said they weren't panicked.

"You could look into the faces of all 15 us and we had perfect peace. That only comes from God. We had perfect peace that we were gong to be fine and we were going to get home," Hall said.

Though it was normally only a 15-minute drive from their compound, it took them an hour and a half to get to the embassy. The main bridge was out and they had to use a secondary bridge where authorities were only letting two cars cross at one time for fear it wasn't structurally sound.

"We were piled in an Isuzu pickup truck with our luggage piled in the bed, sitting on top of the luggage and on the hood of the truck," Hall said.

At the embassy, they met some fellow missionaries who had been in the lobby of a five-story hotel when it collapsed. Incredibly, the building stopped just 2 feet above them, and they were able to get out safely. They gave some of their clothes to the missionaries, and much of the rest to the Haitians.

"Some Haitians are wearing some mighty big clothes they got from me," Lee said.

Friday morning at 2 a.m., they loaded into several SUVs and headed to the airport to be transported out of the country by the U.S. Air Force.

But only Lee and two other men made it on the plane before it was full -- Hall and the others had to turn around and go back to the embassy.

"We were very dejected. It took all the air out of our sails," he said.

The group was told they'd have a flight out by 8 a.m., but they worried when the transport did not arrive on time. They finally made it out on a C-130 prop plane at 11:50 a.m.

"One of the guys looked at me and said, 'Brother, it's all over now. We're going home,'" Hall said.

But as it turns out, the men weren't yet out of harm's way. As they got ready to land at an Air Force base in Homestead, Fla., they smelled smoke. The plane landed in a screech of tires and the smell of burning rubber. The Air Force personnel on board instructed everyone to get off quickly and leave their bags on board.

"The plane was on fire," Hall said. "We'd been through so much that all of us just turned around and casually looked at the plane and walked away. We were just numb from it."

Hall said they were treated like family by the military and offered cots, snacks, water, clothes and showers.

They intended to catch a flight home out of Miami International Airport, but the owner of Southern Services Inc. out of Lithonia, who has an employee that attends Sandy Creek Baptist, heard about their plight and sent a private plane to fly them into Madison instead.

Lee arrived in Madison at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Hall followed at 12:30 a.m. Saturday morning.

"The first person I wanted to see was my wife. I had never seen a prettier site in my life. We couldn't do anything but hug and cry," Hall said.

Once home, they learned several plans for their rescue had been in the works by their church, congressmen and friends.

"The outpouring of love, support and prayers, it was just overwhelming," Hall said.

"We were probably brain-dead for about three days. We were coherent but a little in shock during this process," Lee said.

Nevertheless, Hall was back at work on Monday, "just to get a sense of normalcy," he said.

Both men say they've had flashbacks to their time in Haiti, usually triggered by a noise or smell. Lee said he's dreamed of some of the things he saw there every night since his return.

But the trauma they endured taught them several important lessons.

"No. 1, I've always been raised, and I know, God is control. That is even more apparent with what we've been though," Hall said. "No. 2, it helps you realize how richly blessed we are in America. I just wish every American could spend one week in a third world country. It would give you a great appreciation of how well and how much God has blessed us."

The church's mission work in Haiti is not over, Lee said. Another team will go to Haiti in the next several weeks to help with recovery. That was being planned while the men were waiting to get out of the country, and yes, some who were there during the earthquake plan to go back, he said.

Lee and Hall asked that everyone open their hearts and contribute to relief efforts. Money can be sent to Grace Missions via Sandy Creek Baptist Church, located at 4620 Sandy Creek Road, Madison, GA 30650.

A rescue fund that was established to cover the cost of bringing the mission team home is now also going to help with relief efforts. So far, $19,000 has been raised.

To donate, make checks payable to Sandy Creek Baptist Church, designate to Haiti Mission Fund, and mail to the Bank of Madison at P.O. Box 271, Madison, GA 30650.

All funds will go directly to help victims, Lee said.