Three years ago this week, the earth shook under Port au Prince, Haiti, and for many the world came to an end. I went to Haiti to cover the aftermath of the quake for the ACT Alliance, which had several members actively working in Haiti before the quake. I spent my nights there camped in a tent on the roof of the Lutheran World Federation office, and my days capturing images of death and resilience.
One of the more memorable images was of Ena Zizi, a 70-year old woman whose dirty and injured body–resting on a broken piece of plywood salvaged from the rubble–was carefully pulled out alive a full week after the quake and passed down over three stories of debris to the ground. As I photographed that process, she began singing, a not very articulate song as she hadn’t had any water to drink for seven days. Yet her joy was infectious. Members of the Mexican rescue team carrying her began crying. In one small corner of Port-au-Prince’s tortured and grieving landscape, other rescue teams stopped their digging for a few moments and applauded. Amid so much suffering, it was an extremely precious moment of joy.
How I got to be in position to capture that photograph and the one above of her drinking water is a bit of a story. These were captured right beside the city’s Catholic cathedral, which was wrecked by the quake. I stopped there to photograph it, accompanied by my Haitian translator, Ulrick Louijeune, and a British colleague, Sarah Wilson. We heard from some bystanders that someone had been found alive in a house to one side of the cathedral. We tried to go there. But some soldiers from the U.S. 82nd Airborne, who had seized control of that part of the city, blocked our way. Arguing with them got us nowhere. In fact, it got me yelled at by some superior officer when I insisted on speaking to someone in charge. Oh well. We walked back toward the tap-tap (a Haitian taxi, to use a generous term) that I had rented, and at that very moment I saw CNN’s Anderson Cooper pull up. His small contingent included some sort of military guy, and when they started walking around the corner of the cathedral towards where we’d been turned back, I yelled at Ulrick and Sarah that we should follow. We went jogging around the ruins to arrive at the military perimeter just as the CNN crew did. Somehow the military-looking guy with them had pull, and they were waved through the checkpoint by soldiers holding up the rope that had blocked our access. So we just fell in line with them, following them closely under the rope. Ulrick grinned victoriously at one of the soldiers who a few minutes earlier had stopped us. We followed in CNN’s footsteps until we got to a small doorway between two collapsed buildings. Cooper stopped to check that all his crew was coming, and he noticed us tagging along. He stepped into the middle of the doorway and looked at me with a look that said, “Who are you?” So I reached out and shook his hand, told him who I was, and said we’d been denied access but really appreciated his help in getting us through. I then walked around him through the doorway. Sarah and Ulrick followed.
We quickly learned that a Mexican crew was trying to extricate Zizi, and so I climbed a three-story high pile of rubble, not always an easy task, to where they were working. One of Ulrick’s jobs was pushing me in the butt to keep me from sliding back down the slabs of dust-covered building stones. About five minutes later, the Mexicans pulled her out. The moment was captured by a Reuters photographer, the CNN crew, and me, thanks to the help of my new best friend forever, Anderson Cooper.
The tears were contagious. As were the cries of Viva Mexico!, even from rescuers of other nationalities. A Mexican hugged one of his colleagues and said, in typical Mexican slang, Gracias por traerme aqui, pendejo!
The Mexicans who saved Zizi’s life are known in their home country as the Topos of Tlatelolco–the Gophers of Tlatelolco, a giant apartment complex in Mexico City that was destroyed by the 1985 earthquake. When the government failed to respond promptly, Tlatelolco residents formed their own rescue brigade, learning on the job. Over the years since, they have become stars among international rescue teams. Unlike some rescuers, who stay on the surface and peel away the debris until they reach the victims, the Gophers have become world renowned experts at tunneling into rubble, propping up makeshift tunnels with debris, gaining faster access to survivors. It means they put their own lives more at risk, but that risk paid off for Zizi.
When they got her safely down the rubble, me shooting beside them with Ulrick’s assistance, they laid her on the ground to check her medical condition and to give her some water to drink. I pushed my way into the scrum and managed to capture several images of her face. Most were out of focus, as she was closer to me than the minimum focusing distance of my 70-200 f2.8 lens. But one was usable, and it captured the moment well. It was used a lot around the world, including in places like the Boston Globe’s Big Picture.
Several weeks later I tried to track her down, to see how she’d survived. I found out she’d been taken aboard one US Navy hospital ship, but they told me they’d eventually transferred her to another ship. The people in the Navy I contacted on that ship never answered my emails. I did hear from a son of hers who lived in the US at the time, and he said he had assumed his mother was dead until he saw my picture of her in a Miami paper.