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Wichita family greets woman trapped 55 hours in quake's rubble

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2010, at 12:04 a.m.
  • Updated Tuesday, April 3, 2012, at 1:55 p.m.

What helped sustain Ann Varghese while she was trapped for 55 hours in the rubble of a hotel destroyed by the Haiti earthquake greeted her Monday with tearful hugs.

About 10 family members were at Wichita Mid-Continent Airport to greet Varghese and to see for their own eyes that, yes, she had overcome the impossible.

Her mother, Mariamma Varghese, grabbed her daughter and seemingly was never going to let go.

"Family... knowing our families were waiting for us," Ann Varghese said. "That's what kept up our hopes."

She had no water. Her only food: two pieces of gum and a Tootsie Pop shared by five people, all sharing an unbelievably cramped space about 3 feet high and 5 feet long. But there was air to breathe.

Varghese was one of the first Americans to be rescued, finally pulled out by a team of French firefighters. She emerged badly dehydrated but uninjured.

"Miraculously," she said.

As Varghese recalled the story Monday of that nightmarish 55 hours, her emotions ranged from tears to moments of calmness.

"She's an amazingly strong person," said Sheelu Surender, who brought hugs, tears and flowers to greet her sister.

She had to be.

Varghese, 31, works for IMA World Health, a nonprofit organization based in Baltimore. As a program officer, her duties include dealing with tropical diseases in countries such as Haiti.

A graduate of Southeast High and the University of Kansas, she and two IMA colleagues were in Haiti last week to meet with three others with the United Methodist Committee on Relief.

It was right at 5 p.m. last Tuesday. They had just finished their meeting at Hotel Montana, a 63-year-old structure located on a mountainside in Port-au-Prince.

The six were in the lobby and had just decided to have dinner together at the hotel restaurant. Varghese started to ask the desk clerk for directions to the restaurant.

"Before I could get one word out of my mouth, the building started shaking," she said. "I turned to face my colleagues and within seconds the entire building was on top of us."

Dust and confusion followed.

"My first thought, it was a bomb," Varghese said.

She and IMA president and CEO Rick Santos and United Methodist workers Jim Gulley, Sam Dixon and Clinton Rabb were trapped in the 3-by-5-foot space.

Dixon and Rabb, both pastors, had their legs pinned by the rubble and couldn't move. Large men, they took up about half of the small space.

"Crouching was all we could do," Varghese said.

Sarla Chand, another senior IMA staffer, was trapped on the other side of an adjoining collapsed wall.

Chand was in complete darkness, but the others had some light from cell phones and lap tops.

"We talked about our families, our careers, where we'd been," Varghese said. "We tried to keep our hopes up. There were times our moods were better than others."

Hopes soared when they heard voices Wednesday morning. Someone asked how they were doing.

"We thought, 'We're going to be rescued,' " Varghese said.

Just as quickly, hopes were dashed. The person left and didn't return.

"When we thought we heard something, we'd yell and scream," Varghese said. "We had no idea what was going on outside."

About 7 p.m. Thursday, the French firefighters found them. But it would be another five hours before Varghese could finally be pulled out through the narrow opening.

She remained in the confined space a little longer than some of the others — in part so she could translate for a French doctor, who had entered the hole to tend to the badly injured pastors.

One of the pastors died at the scene; the other died Sunday at a Florida hospital. Santos, Mason and Chand all survived.

Varghese was pulled by her arms while she laid on her back. She thought that would free her, but she still had to be squeezed through another small opening. Finally, she was out.

Although it was still dark, she began to get a sense of the earthquake that has killed an estimated 200,000 people and left more than 1 million homeless.

She was given a satellite phone to use for a brief call home.

"The only number I had memorized was my sister's," Varghese said. "I didn't have my cell phone."

It was past midnight in Wichita when Surender, the sister, answered the phone.

"Words can't describe it," Surender said. "The whole family, we were extremely distraught. We had been obsessively looking on the Internet for information."

Varghese, who lives in the Baltimore area, will stay in Wichita with family through Saturday. She has other family around the country she also wants to see — and hug.

But, yes, she plans to return to Haiti.

"Of course," Varghese said. "This is the work I love. They are definitely going to need some help."

Reach Rick Plumlee at 316-268-6660 or rplumlee@wichitaeagle.com.

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