Compassion Canada CEO Barry Slauenwhite and a group of fellow Canadians were met at the Port-au-Prince airport on Jan. 12 with an unexpected diplomatic reception. It lasted only 15 or 20 minutes, but it was long enough to possibly save their lives.
Barry was leading a weeklong vision trip for six Canadian pastors and their wives. Their home for the week was to be the Hotel Montana. But less than an hour after landing in Haiti, it became clear that this trip would take a very different turn.
Instead of settling into the hotel at 4:53 p.m., they were still en route, traveling in a minibus with two Haitian staff. Barry recalls,
“We were driving on the back streets to avoid traffic congestion, and the bus had been bumping around a lot anyway, but all of a sudden it started heaving from side to side. We saw people who had been walking all falling. One lady fell right in front of us, and walls crashed down on both sides of us.”
As buildings shook and began to crumble before their very eyes, the passengers could barely process what they were seeing.
“From our vantage point, we could see the city of Port-au-Prince beneath us and all the dust that was blowing up. That’s when the gravity of the situation hit us.”
Miraculously, nearly three hours after the quake struck, they were able to text their families back home when one of their cell phones began working for about 15 minutes. As soon as everyone had typed out a quick message to report that they were safe, the signal was lost.
With people and debris filling the streets by the second, their vehicle could barely move forward. One woman was killed right in front of them, and bodies were already piling up as they inched toward their new destination, the Compassion office on Delmas Street. Still, the Haiti staff were determined to press on, even as their Canadian passengers pleaded with them to leave and go check on their families.
What should have been a 12-minute drive instead took three horrifying hours.
“We felt so helpless, but we knew the one tool we had was prayer. Our vehicle became a mobile prayer chapel. When we saw someone wounded, we cried out to God on their behalf.”
When they turned onto Delmas Street and saw huge commercial buildings flattened, they could only gasp, “There’s nothing left.”
At 8 p.m., they arrived at the Compassion office and were surprised to find it still standing. Also standing, across the street, was the Canadian Embassy, built just four years earlier.
As the first Canadians to arrive at the embassy, they were welcomed but told they would have to sleep outside since the building was still considered unsafe. They spent the night — most of them not sleeping at all — in a parking lot, trying to breathe through the thick dust that had hours ago been Haiti’s center of commerce.
Twenty-eight hours later they boarded a Hercules military transport that would take them to the Dominican Republic. By Thursday afternoon, they were home, where Barry sat glued to the media coverage of the country he had just left.
“The hardest part was leaving. Tears ran down my face as I asked God how I could leave my brothers and sisters at such a time. But I felt like God was telling me I needed to go back home and do what I could do here — be an advocate for these people, tell their story, raise money for their recovery. I haven’t stopped since I got home.”