Search Continues at Hotel Montana

January 31, 2010 – 5:04 PM | by: Michael Sorrentino

We had a brief trip to the Hotel Montana site today.  Of all the recovery efforts I’ve seen so far, this is the most productive and well organized. There was a constant flow of trucks carrying out rubble that has been sifted through and then sent off to a landfill about six miles away.

As we walked up to the site, workers were pulling a body from the rubble, bringing the total number of recovered to 25.

It was quiet and machines were shut off.  Workers handled the remains with complete respect and dignity – this was someone’s child. Colonel Norberto Cintron said that he treats this site like a shrine to those who are now buried there.  These workers are emotionally attached to this mission – some have friends or family in there.  Major Chris Muller of the US Army told us that his friend and colleague was in there  – Air Force Major Ken Bourland. He was seen a few minutes before the quake emailing in the building and has not been found.

Also on site was Bill Hawkins, the Incident Commander of the Hotel Montana Recovery Mission for the US Army Corp of Engineers. Hawkins is a tall military man and engineer from Denver.  Bill noticed the wedding band of a Columbian man that he was working with.  A day or so later, they were pulling a woman’s body out and he noticed that the man wasn’t in the area for the recovery.  When he looked close, he saw the woman had a matching wedding band to his.  A tough guy, Hawkins held back tears in recalling the moment when he told the man it was, in fact, his wife.

Just two days ago, the body of a 4 year old Guatemalan boy was recovered, his father holding him in his arms as the building crumbled around them.  The mother and brother of that boy are alive.  Bill said to me, “I don’t know if you have a family, but I do – and no parent wants to see that.”

Amidst the devastation around them, the men and women working this mission have a sense of duty to the families of those who have been entombed in what was once a 5 story symbol of Haiti’s potential.  The hotel was capable of holding 145 people.  The day the earthquake struck it was at 95% capacity.  It is believed that only 50% of the people were in the hotel at the time of the quake since many were at work during the daytime.

A total of 17 survivors have been pulled from the rubble since Hotel collapsed, but officials say they expect no more survivors to be found.

When a victim’s body is found the process of identification is a difficult one – a contractor carefully packages up the remains for identification under the watch of the US State Department in the US Embassy in Port au Prince’s makeshift mortuary. From there, they are sent to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware and then home to rest, while some families will come and receive their loved ones here in Haiti by means of commercial aircraft.

Safety is the biggest concern, though the demolished structure is at rest, it can shift at any time, causing serious injuries to workers. As we head away from the hotel site back to Fox’s makeshift Haiti Bureau, a body partially covered with a tarp lay on the side of the road just yards from the gates of the Hotel Montana.  Thanks to the efforts of volunteers from all over the world, the family members of those lost in the Hotel Montana will eventually be able to lay their loved ones to rest, while many Haitians are left with only questions.

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