- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 24, 2010

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti | An international team of rescuers unearthed a shop clerk in good condition from deep beneath the concrete and wooden wreckage of a hotel grocery store Saturday, 11 days after an earthquake crumbled Haiti’s capital.

Dozens of onlookers wearing masks against the stench of the city’s decaying bodies cheered when Wismond Exantus, clad in a black T-shirt and black pants, was carried from a narrow tunnel on a stretcher and placed in an ambulance. He braced one arm with the other.

“I was hungry,” Exantus told The Associated Press from his hospital bed soon after the rescue. “But every night I thought about the revelation that I would survive.”

Exantus, who is in his 20s, said he survived initially by diving under a desk when the rubble started to fall around him. Trapped in such a small space, he had lie on his back the entire time and survived by drinking cola, beer and cookies.

“I would eat anything I found,” he said. “After the quake I didn’t know when it was day and when it was night.”

On Sunday, Marie-Laurence Jocelyn Lassegue, the country’s communications minister, said the confirmed death toll has topped 150,000 in the Port-au-Prince metropolitan area alone, with many more thousands dead around the country or still buried under the rubble.

Lassegue told the Associated Press the figure is based on a body count in the capital and outlying areas by CNE, a state company that has been collecting corpses and burying them in a mass grave north of Port-au-Prince. It does not include other affected cities such as Jacmel, where thousands are believed dead, nor does it account for bodies burned by relatives.

The United Nations said Saturday the government had confirmed 111,481 bodies; all told, authorities have estimated 200,000 dead from the magnitude-7.0 quake, according to Haitian government figures cited by the European Commission.

“Nobody knows how many bodies are buried in the rubble — 200,000, 300,000?” Lassegue said. “Who knows the overall death toll?”

Experts say chances are slim that more survivors will be found in that debris, despite the surprising rescue Saturday of Exantus.

One of his brothers, Jean Elit Jean Pierre, said Exantus worked as a cashier in the grocery store on the ground floor of the Hotel Napoli. The brothers persuaded rescuers to save Exantus, who has a different name because he had it changed.

From his hospital bed Saturday, Exantus turned to his family and said, “When you are in a hole I will try to reach out to you, too.”

Earlier Saturday, the United Nations announced the Haitian government had declared an end to rescue operations. Still, dozens of international teams continued to pick through rubble of the Jan. 12 quake.

Saturday’s rescue effort started when one of the man’s brothers helped get a Greek search team to the site after hearing Exantus’ voice, said Apostolos Dedas, a mission leader for the Greek team.

“It is very emotional. It is the best thing that can happen to you when you are a rescuer,” Dedas said.

Lt. Col. Christophe Renou, a French Civil Protection official who was part of the rescue team at the site, said rescuers used chain saws, heavy duty drills and hand saws to dig a narrow tunnel to the man and got him water while working to extract him. Renou said the man was buried under 16 to 20 feet (5 to 6 meters) of debris, mostly wood and concrete.

The rescue teams said they sent two women into the tunnel because only they could fit.

Carmen Michalska, a Scottish woman who is a member of the Greek team, found Exantus wedged between shelving and debris, and a French female rescuer used a saw to cut away the last bit of debris. When Exantus emerged, “He was smiling and he was just really happy to get out,” Michalska said. “He said, ‘Thank you.’”

Renou speculated the man survived because the building was mostly wooden, which created some air spaces. He said he was not sure if anyone else was trapped in the collapsed store and the team was using radar to check the rubble for signs of life.

“What happened in that spot there is a miracle,” Renou said. “We are really happy he is alive.”

Rescues have become increasingly rare since the magnitude-7.0 quake leveled the city, killing an estimated 200,000 people. Before the latest rescue, U.N. spokeswoman Elisabeth Byrs said 132 people had been pulled alive from collapsed buildings.

Experts say the chance of saving trapped people begins diminishing after 72 hours.


Associated Press Writer Mike Melia contributed to this report.

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