<i>Unshaken:</i> Worshipping in the Ruins of Haiti's Earthquake

Dan Woolley with Jennifer Schuchmann | Authors | Wednesday, December 29, 2010

<i>Unshaken:</i> Worshipping in the Ruins of Haiti's Earthquake


EDITOR'S NOTE: Dan Woolley was in Haiti last January when a 7.0 magnitude earthquake destroyed much of Port-au-Prince. The quake also trapped Woolley under six stories of rubble at the Hotel Montana. Woolley and several others trapped in the rubble finally made contact with French rescuers two days after the quake, but a shift change left Woolley and a Haitian man named Lukeson forgotten in the rubble. The following is an excerpt from 
Unshaken: Rising from the Ruins of Haiti's Hotel Montana (Zondervan), in which Woolley chronicles the 60 hours he spent trapped in the rubble. You can view Crosswalk.com's interview with Dan Wooley below.

I am going to die because someone lost a list.

I picked up the concrete brick and banged and yelled. It was a healthy way of taking out my anger and frustration. I wasn't going to accept my elevator death sentence just because of someone's communication error!

* * *

More time had passed, and I debated my endgame plan again, but there were still problems with it. Even if I could figure out how to use the iPhone as a light source, even if I could boost myself up and into the elevator shaft, and even if I could climb the shaft without falling, how would I force open the elevator doors on the floors above me? At a minimum, I would need a crowbar.

I probably should have been worried about how weak I was becoming. Instead, I just lay on the floor panting and trying to come up with a plan for what to do next.

OK, God. If I am going to die here, so be it. But I'm still worried about my family. And I don't understand how you can bring good for my family in spite of my death.

I had expended an inordinate amount of energy banging and yelling, yet it was the diminishing of hope that drained all of my strength. Almost being rescued and then realizing it wasn't going to happen was worse than never thinking I'd be rescued at all.

While the buzz from the saw blades and drill bits continued in the distance, they didn't seem to be getting any closer to me. I could no longer hear voices, and there was no further sound of the American captain who had asked for a new team to rescue survivors he'd identified.

It would be so easy to just close my eyes and die right here. But I fought the urge. The rescuers are very near; they'll get to us eventually. Just hang on until they get here. Still, I began to suspect it could be a matter of days, not hours, before they got to me. It was also possible that the tools being used could unsettle something and send the remaining walls crashing down.

I wondered about the instructions given to the rescue teams. Were they told, like the Marines, to get everyone out and not leave anyone behind? Or were they like some civilian teams that were told just to rescue and treat those they could safely save? I hoped it was more of a Marine mentality out there, but I could understand why in a situation where so many ­people needed to be rescued, it would be smart to cherry-pick the easy ones first. If there were fifty kids in a schoolroom somewhere across Port-au-Prince, it made more sense to take ­people and equipment there and rescue as many of them as possible. And I hoped they would make that choice, but where would that leave me?

I wasn't sure if it mattered what their plan was. Even if they desired to get me out, I didn't know if they could. Obviously, the captain of the American team couldn't get a crew when he needed one, and the French team had made promises and then disappeared. Just because someone was a member of a rescue team, or even a captain of that team, it didn't mean they had full control over who would get rescued and who wouldn't. I resigned myself to spending several more days in my elevator.

As I thought about spending additional time trapped, I grew more concerned about dehydration. I could feel myself getting weaker. While I could probably go without food for several more days, I knew I couldn't live as long without water.

My backpack! I had two bottles of water, one attached to each side. If I could find the pack, I would have enough water to last a few more days.

The aftershocks seemed to be over, and the walls and debris outside the elevator hadn't shifted since the first aftershock. Though I wasn't willing to risk it before, it now seemed worth the risk to venture outside of the elevator to search for my backpack in the lobby. It couldn't be far from where I was when it was knocked from my back as the quake hit.

I didn't have much to lose. I was already feeling pretty frail, and I had everything to gain. I pulled myself up with the handrail. I noticed how much weaker I was. It took both arms to pull myself up, and then I had to steady myself before I could take a ­couple of feeble steps.

I had become familiar with the dark confines of my elevator, but venturing outside the shaft would be dangerous because I didn't know what was out there. I decided to use my iPhone for light. I knew there was another battery extender inside the pack; if I could find the pack, I'd have more battery power.

I moved cautiously, groping with my hands and using the light sparingly. I didn't see the backpack anywhere. I flashed the phone in the general direction of where I'd seen David's leg in my picture, knowing this was where I had been too. I cautiously took steps toward the wall, being careful not to step on

That's not David's leg!

Instead, it was a board covered in blood. That's my blood! I must have crawled across it on my way to the elevator. I stared, surprised at the amount of blood. I had thought that was David's leg when I saw it in the picture. I had cried about that leg, and now I could see it was just a board. Relief swept over me.

I didn't want to stay in the lobby any longer than I had to, so I took another quick look around, but I didn't see my backpack or any signs of David. I noticed a futon couch covered in a tropical print. I tried to grab the large cushion, but when I couldn't get it to budge, I settled for one of the dusty pillows and grabbed it to take back to the elevator. Though my attempt to find my backpack was a failure, at least the pillow would bring a nice bit of comfort.

I hobbled back to the elevator. By the time I lay back down, I was breathing heavily. I thought about the blood smeared on the board and had a new appreciation for how severe my leg wound was.

Knowing it wasn't David's leg also lightened my mood. Though it had been two and a half days, and I hadn't heard a sound from him, at least I was no longer positive that he was dead. There was still hope.

"Lukeson, are you there?"

"Yes, Dan-yell." His voice wavered.

"I just walked around the lobby to see if I could find water. Remember how I told you my friend David had died?"

"Yes."

"Well, what I thought was his leg, wasn't. There's still a chance he may be alive."

"Oh."

"Listen, Lukeson, if the French rescuers come back and I'm not here, will you please tell them to look for David?"

I didn't have to explain what I meant about not being here. Lukeson would know, because he also felt death's breath on the back of his neck.

"Yes."

"Thanks."

I could tell he didn't have the energy to talk more, which was fine, because I didn't either. Since I couldn't find the water, I tried to think about what other sources I had for sustenance. I considered eating paper from my journal, but I realized there wouldn't be any nutritional value in that. I wonder if my passport cover is made of leather. Even if it wasn't, I wondered if putting something —​ anything — in my stomach would ease the hunger pains that had been intensifying. I kept the option open and did the only thing I could physically do here in the elevator: I prayed.

Father, I so want to believe that you can bring good out of any situation and even bring good to my family if I die. But I just can't see it. I can't imagine how anything other than rescuing me would be a good plan for them. Please intervene!

I'm not going to bargain with you, God. I'm not going to say, "If you do this, I'll do that." But you tell us to bring our requests to you. So I'm going to tell you again what I want. Father, I want to go back to my family. And you can do it. You have the power to get me out of here safely. You saved Daniel from the lions' den, and his friends from the fiery furnace. You've already performed miracles to keep me alive. There are rescuers all around me, so please, God, please rescue me!

Despite the moments of encouragement and peace I had experienced from God earlier in the elevator, I felt no peace now. I felt nothing but worry and despair. Since the earthquake, I had oscillated back and forth between fear of death and hope for rescue. And I had processed both realities through my mind. Here in my weakened condition, death seemed more likely than ever, and I felt all the worried moments I had experienced since the earthquake stacking on top of me like the stories of this collapsed hotel.

I started shaking. My heartbeat echoed in my ears, and I could hear my heart rate increasing. My breathing grew faster and shallower, and I tried to slow it down so I wouldn't hyperventilate. Don't panic! Sweat soaked my T-shirt. I felt like I was losing control of my body ​— ​as if it was rapidly breaking down and there was nothing I could do to stop it. I felt despair unlike anything I had ever experienced before.

Once again, I heard God's calming voice in my mind: "Worship me."

Right now? Really? Typically I worshiped through prayer and song, but I didn't feel like I could do either right now. But I decided to try. While I wasn't ready to trust God for everything, I could trust him with this request.

I closed my eyes and started singing "Arise, My Soul, Arise." As I sang the words "my name is written on His hands," I choked up, remembering that even if the French team lost their list of survivors, God knew I was here — ​I was on his list. As I transitioned to "Be Still, My Soul," I began to feel my body and spirit calm down. I sang the first verse, "Leave to thy God to order and provide; in every change, He faithful will remain." Intellectually I wanted to leave it all to God — to completely give him my situation and my fears. But I couldn't make my heart do it yet. I wasn't ready to accept the idea that, whether I lived or died, he would always take care of my family.

Verse, chorus, verse — ​I continued to sing other worship songs.

My heart rate returned to normal, and my sense of dread subsided. I lay on my back with my legs up on the opposite wall. While I was singing, I began to picture myself in a big field, as if I were in the middle of someone's farm. Above me, a canopy of blinking stars shone brilliantly in the dark and clear night sky. As they danced and twinkled, I was their audience. Nothing obstructed my vision.

I marveled at the view. It wasn't a picture, and the scene wasn't static. I saw wispy clouds floating below the stars. And I wasn't just watching the scene; I was in it. I even felt a light breeze on my skin. All of the debris had made it musty in the elevator, and I hadn't felt the air stir at all. Yet lying there watching the clouds in motion, I could feel the breeze that moved them. I felt as if I had been transported. No longer was I lying in the elevator; instead, I was sitting in a shallow pool of warm water or perhaps a Jacuzzi. I even felt like I could dip my fingers in the water and they would get wet.

It all felt so real that I wondered if I was hallucinating. I opened my eyes, and the whole scene went away — ​I found myself back in the complete darkness of my elevator. I closed my eyes and returned to the vision. It was a bit like waking up and then closing my eyes and returning to a dream, but I was fully conscious and in control the whole time.

In college, someone asked, "What part of nature connects you to God?" For me, it was always the same: ocean waves, stars, and a breeze ruffling the trees on a mountain. They were symbols of his power, and in their presence it was easy to believe that God's Spirit still moves on the earth, still moves in our lives. If I had to pick the most peaceful place I could imagine, the one place where I felt most bathed in God's love, it would be an open field under the stars. That's what I was experiencing.

My college roommate had written one of my favorite worship choruses, setting Psalm 40 to music. The words really spoke to me as I sang them.

I waited patiently for the Lord;
he inclined his ear and heard my cry.
He lifted me from the pit,
out of the mud and mire;
he set me on a rock.
H
e put a new song in my mouth,
a hymn of praise to our God.

I closed my eyes as I sang, and I made the words my prayer. I knew God had heard my cry — ​when I asked for his presence and comfort, he had responded. This worship experience was lifting me from my pit at the bottom of the hotel and transporting me onto unshakable ground, where I could sit in perfect peace and absolute security.

The singing continued, and one song flowed into another, as if there was a divine worship leader and I was just following along. I felt the wind on my face and the water gently warming my body.

Tears rolled down my face — ​tears of joy. I could feel God's presence more intimately than I ever had in my life. He was with me, just like I had asked. He wasn't just the audience in this worship experience, but somehow he was a participant in a two-way dialogue. As I sang, my spirit spoke with him about my worries; my hopes for my life, my family; my gratefulness for his grace and his sacrifice on the cross. I heard from him words of encouragement, reminders of his power and his love for me — ​even his delight in me.

Although I couldn't see his face or hold his hand, I felt as though he had graced me with his presence. He was here with me in an intimate and powerful way during my dying hours. I couldn't tell how long this worship experience continued. Maybe a half hour, maybe hours - ​the experience transcended time.

Eventually, the worship time came to an end, and, reluctantly, I let the vision slip away. As I lay overwhelmed and worn-out — ​yet still in the afterglow of the experience — ​I was aware of a clear and unmistakable message from God. This time it was not like I was hearing specific words in my mind, but rather like I was hearing the final note of our worship time, like the sustained resonance that lingers in the air after the ringing of a bell.

Trust me, with everything.

And so, finally, I did. I trusted God with my crisis. I trusted him with my death. I trusted him with my family after I died — ​with Christy, with Josh, and with Nathan. My questions were resolved. My fears were gone. It's not that I understood how God would make something good from my death, but I knew that, because of his power and love, he would. The majesty and awesome beauty that I had just witnessed and the love and grace that he had poured on me in such a personal way were evidence enough. My Father would make this situation work out for the good. Guaranteed.

He would be a father to Josh and Nathan and a husband to Christy. He would make my life and my death matter in their lives, and his good purposes would be fulfilled. Somehow there would be good through David's death as well, and God would care for his family in special ways. Even for the ­people of Haiti, who had to be suffering so much, God would bring good through the tragedy of this earthquake.

Thank you, Father, for showing me you can be trusted completely! I trust you. Let your will be done in this situation ​whatever that may be.

My thoughts were interrupted by a voice from above.

"Hello. Is anybody there?"

"Taken from Unshaken by Dan Woolley. Copyright © 2010 by Zondervan. Used by permission of Zondervan. www.zondervan.com.


Dan Woolley survived 65 trapped under the Hotel Montana after the earthquake in Haiti last January. He recorded his survival story in Unshaken: Rising from the Ruins of the Hotel Montana. Woolley is an interactive strategies director for Compassion International and creator of the website www.MyKidsWeek.com. He earned his bachelor's degree in English and international studies from Azusa Pacific University and has spent his career working with nonprofit organizations. After his rescue from beneath Haiti's Hotel Montana, Woolley appeared on the Today show, NBC Nightly News, Inside Edition, and Larry King Live. He and his wife, Christy, reside in Colorado Springs with their two sons, Josh and Nathan. 

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