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Unshaken: Rising from the Ruins of Haiti's Hotel Montana

Unshaken: Rising from the Ruins of Haiti's Hotel Montana

by Dan Woolley, Jennifer Schuchmann (With)

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After a last-minute hotel switch, no one, not even Dan Woolley’s wife, knew where he was staying when the 7.0 earthquake hit Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on January 12, 2010. Just moments after walking into the lobby of the Hotel Montana, Woolley watched the walls buckle as the six-story hotel collapsed on top of him.

In a harrowing story of survival, he recounts


After a last-minute hotel switch, no one, not even Dan Woolley’s wife, knew where he was staying when the 7.0 earthquake hit Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on January 12, 2010. Just moments after walking into the lobby of the Hotel Montana, Woolley watched the walls buckle as the six-story hotel collapsed on top of him.

In a harrowing story of survival, he recounts the nearly three days he spent trapped beneath the rubble. He details his survival methods—including using an iPhone app to treat his life-threatening injuries, conversations with strangers buried nearby, letters to his family, and the small and large decisions he made that affected his chances of surviving the Haiti earthquake that took the lives of hundreds of thousands of people.

Unshaken includes a 16-page color insert and the heartrending reflections from Woolley's wife, Christy.

Product Details

Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.40(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.90(d)
Age Range:
18 Years

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Rising From the Ruins of Haiti's Hotel Montana
By Dan Woolley Jennifer Schuchmann


Copyright © 2011 Daniel Woolley
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-310-33097-4

Chapter One


I spit out the blood and dust that coats my mouth, but I can't spit out the fear. Buried beneath six stories of rubble, the remains of what was once the Hotel Montana, I'm hanging on to the realization that I lived through an earthquake. I survived! But I also know that if I want to make it out of this black tomb alive, if I ever hope to see my family again, it will take a miracle — a series of miracles.

Miracles I'm not sure I have the faith to believe in.

In the complete darkness, I can't see a thing. The dust in my nose prevents me from smelling anything but concrete. I rub my arms and feel flecks of dust and debris sticking to the hairs. Wiping debris off my face, I can feel a paste where dust mixed with sweat. My body feels weak and broken. The fine powder collects on my eyelids, making them feel heavy. It would be easy to just close my eyes and drift off — to sleep, to death. But one thought keeps me awake and motivated: I have to live so I can get back to my family. How will my wife, Christy, react when she finds out I am buried in Haiti? It turns my stomach to think about her and the boys learning about the quake.

I need a place to rest and think about what to do next, but the elevator floor I'm sitting on is covered in jagged blocks of concrete and debris. I try to extend my legs, but the car is too small for my six-foot frame, and my feet touch the opposite wall. I try to adjust my body so that I am sitting diagonally to give myself room to stretch. I keep my legs spread apart so my knees don't touch and cause more pain in my leg wound. I had hoped that sitting still would diminish the pain, but with each beat of my heart my leg throbs with intense pain. I adjust my balled-up sock, putting it between my head and the wall to keep pressure on my wound. My thick hair feels sticky and warm to the touch — not a good sign. It means my head is still bleeding.

I'm getting tired, but I'm afraid to fall asleep. What if I slip into unconsciousness? Sleep feels like a significant threat — especially if I have a concussion or drift into shock. Even in the best case, sleep means giving up control of managing my circumstances. I've survived an earthquake; I'm not going to die in my sleep. I fumble for my iPhone and set the alarm to go off in twenty minutes. That way, even if I fall asleep, I won't nap long.

A poem by Dylan Thomas comes to mind. I had read it in college but hadn't thought of it in years. "Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage, rage against the dying of the light."

That's what I am going to do. I will rage against anything that might keep me from returning to my family. I take an inventory of my resources: my camera and iPhone, my passport, my journal, and a pen or two. Not much. I wonder if it is even possible to survive. And more importantly, if I don't, what might happen to my wife, Christy?

Christy had been diagnosed with clinical depression soon after we married. It took nearly six years before we were able to get it under control with therapy and medicine, but since then we'd enjoyed ten years of health and a happy marriage. Yet Christy and I both knew how quickly she could fall back into that black abyss. All it would take was a tragic event, something happening to one of our boys, or the death of one of her parents. With God's help, we had walked through her sickness together, but one thing we failed to anticipate was that something might happen to me.

Sitting in the darkness, I had to admit — things didn't look good.

I didn't sleep. I set my alarm again. And again. And yet again. That gave me the chance to assess my situation every twenty minutes. I wasn't sure I could hold on until rescuers arrived. Even in the worst disasters in the United States, buildings collapsed one or two at a time, not a whole city at a time. When people are trapped, professional rescuers — police, firefighters, and specially trained search and rescue teams — are on the scene in minutes, hours at most. They have trucks, equipment, extensive training, and experience. They have emergency plans, backup plans, and worst-case scenario plans.

But I wasn't in the United States.

I was buried in Haiti — one of the poorest countries in the world — and they had nothing. I was trapped in the wreckage of my collapsed hotel in an elevator car the size of a small shower. Despite all of that, I knew I was fortunate to be alive. I suspected that my colleague, David, had died instantly.

In order to survive, every decision I made had life-and-death consequences, but only one had eternal importance. Could I trust God for whatever came next? In the dark, with my head pressed against the elevator wall, I cried. Not for myself, but for Christy and the boys.

What would life be like for them if I died?

Chapter Two


Tuesday, January 12, 9:15 a.m. (EST)

Port-au-Prince, Haiti

"Good morning, Dan," Ephraim said as the SUV rolled to a stop in front of our hotel. "Are you ready to go to the church?"

"I'm ready and excited," I said as I helped David, the videographer for this trip, load our gear into the back of the car.

I had corresponded with Ephraim for several months planning this trip to Haiti, so I wasn't surprised when I found him waiting for us at the airport when we arrived on Monday. I immediately recognized his smile beaming out from underneath his straw hat with the bright tropical print on the band. After loading our luggage into his SUV, Ephraim took us to the Compassion International office in Port-au-Prince, where we spent the day with the local staff.

Though Ephraim and I were both employees of Compassion, we couldn't have been more different. He was physically one of the largest Haitian men I'd ever met. His stocky frame dwarfed my average build, and by comparison, his dark glistening skin made my olive complexion look pale. When I learned on Monday that Ephraim was assigned to be our guide for the rest of the week, I was pleased. Despite our physical differences, we had already connected around our common mission.

As I climbed in behind David, and settled in my seat, Ephraim's ebullient spirit seemed to overflow the SUV. I looked forward to the day's events — visiting a new Compassion program at a church just outside of the city and then making a home visit to one of the moms who participated in the program.

In the front seat next to Ephraim was Johnnie, a Haitian translator who helped Compassion and several other nonprofit organizations in Port-au-Prince. Johnnie was also tall and dark, slightly darker than Ephraim, but he was very thin.

While Ephraim didn't need a reason to laugh — he laughed at anything — Johnnie was more deliberate in his humor. He used his language skills to create a joke by carefully wordsmithing the conversation to evoke a laugh. Johnnie and Ephraim were like a vaudeville slapstick team — comedian and sidekick — keeping David and me entertained. I could tell they enjoyed working together.

* * *

As we drove up to the church and parked in the dirt lot next to it, I noticed the drab exterior of the one-story concrete building. I wondered what we'd find inside. We all exited the SUV eager to get started. Ephraim pushed his door shut, and the SUV rocked. Though his size may have been intimidating, his spirit wasn't. An inner joy danced across his face as he explained the program we would soon see inside the church.

"I'll introduce you to the pastor first," he said as he took off toward the front door. With his long strides, there was no point in trying to keep up with him. Ephraim had an undeniable sense of urgency about Compassion's work. Whenever he spoke about the difficulty of life in Haiti, he also talked about the difference Compassion was making for mothers and their children trapped in poverty. He understood the hardships of life in Haiti and chose to defy that reality by committing joyful acts of ser vice for those who needed it most.

I guessed Ephraim was in his midfifties, but he had a boisterous life energy about him that belied a much younger man. His contagious smile filled his round face, and his hearty laugh made his whole body shake. He was like a monster-sized teddy bear just waiting for someone to hug.

I helped David grab the video camera and other equipment from the back of the SUV, and we hurried to catch up to Ephraim.

"Let's review what you want to accomplish today," David said as we walked.

"We need video that captures the Child Survival Program in action. I believe if people can see what Compassion is doing here, they'll want to support the ministry."

I'd only worked at Compassion International's headquarters in Colorado Springs for eighteen months, but I'd already learned a lot and I was impressed. Founded in 1952, Compassion is a Christian child development ministry that works to release children from spiritual, economic, social, and physical poverty. The long-term process can begin with prenatal care and continue through leadership training for qualified young adults who have earned an opportunity to attend a university. Compassion currently serves more than one million children in twenty-five countries worldwide. Though Compassion is perhaps best known for their child sponsorship programs — where donors form one-on-one relationships with their sponsored children through exchanging letters — in the past few years, new programs like the Child Survival Program were already making a huge impact. As one of Compassion's website developers, I was excited to highlight these new programs online so our donors could see the impact their donations were having.

"Most donors will never get within three hundred miles of the poverty in Haiti, but if they can watch a video on their computer that gets them even three steps closer to a mom who lives it every day, then we will have done our job well," I said.

"You're passionate about this, aren't you?" David asked.

"I hear you're pretty passionate yourself," I replied, knowing David's long history of working on behalf of children. Though this was our first time working together, David had worked with Compassion many times before. I had reviewed his past work and was impressed with not only his camera skills and creativity but also his interest in helping children. Having worked with orphan ministries and other child-based advocacy programs, he was uniquely qualified to do this job.

* * *

Opening the creaky wooden door, I stepped right into the church sanctuary, where forty moms with babies and young children were waving their arms, singing, and clapping in time with the Creole rhythms. Some women turned their faces heavenward and closed their eyes as they lost themselves in the worship music. Others held babies with one arm and waved the other. Most were dressed in outdated Western clothes, their wardrobes the obvious remnants of donations received from mission teams of the past. A bright blend of colorful dresses and T-shirts moved and swayed in time to the music, contrasting with the dark interior of the solid concrete building and the sturdy gray benches that lined the center aisle. The room was more festive and alive than I had imagined while reading reports about the program before I left Colorado.

"I'm going to check the lighting," David said as we dropped the gear toward the back of the church. I left him to set up his equipment and joined Ephraim and Johnnie, who were already talking to the pastor in the opposite corner of the sanctuary.

"Thank you for coming," Pastor Yves said, giving me a hug. He didn't speak English so Johnnie translated for him. "We're glad you are here to tell our story."

I hoped I could.

Typically, my job at Compassion was to take existing photos and videos produced by others and present them online to tell stories about the work Compassion was doing all over the world. But this was the first time I was the one responsible for actually capturing the stories and images I would need. I had four days to find video that would move donors to care about mothers and babies they'd never met in places they'd never been. I knew David would help me put together an effective piece, but I was still nervous to do the actual interviews and serve as the creative director, making decisions about which stories and images to capture. A lot was riding on this, and I felt the weight of the responsibility.

I glanced over at David and watched as he studied the room, looking for natural sources of light. Once he found the right spot, he carefully set down his bags, opened the tripod, and adjusted it to the right height. Next he unpacked his gear, put batteries in the video camera and mics, and inserted a fresh tape. He checked the audio level and adjusted the settings, then nodded to let me know he was ready.

All of Compassion's child development programs are implemented through local churches. Compassion provides a comprehensive program and materials, while churches adapt the program for the needs of their communities. The last thing I wanted this church to do was stage anything for us; we wanted to capture their program exactly as they practiced it.

"Don't change a thing. We just want to observe," I told the pastor.

When the singing finished, the child survival specialist joined us after turning the group over to one of her helpers. We introduced ourselves, and, with her permission, I picked up my camera and started taking pictures of the women and their babies, giving David the nod to start filming.

The moms were seated on benches, listening to the leader. "Pick up your babies and talk to them. Let them stare at and touch your face. This will help them grow socially and emotionally." This was new information to many of these women. In a country where 80 percent of families live in extreme poverty, surviving on less than two dollars a day, babies are often parked in a corner of the house while mothers do what they can to provide for them. Interacting with their babies is something these mothers have never seen modeled.

I tried to remain unobtrusive, but being a white male in a remote Haitian church filled with women and children made that impossible. When the kids saw me, they stared with curiosity over the safety of their mothers' shoulders or from behind their skirts. The girls' beaded braids lightly jingled as they turned their heads to get a better look.

"To keep your baby healthy, remember to filter your water," the leader instructed. There was a sense of camaraderie, a bonding that took place among the women. I focused on their faces and tried to capture the joy in their expressions with my lens.

The leader invited a couple of people to join her at the front. Under her direction, they began a role-playing game. I was surprised to see there were also a few men participating. Why not? Fathers needed to learn these skills too. The men acted out a scene under the leader's direction, and there was give-and-take dialogue — a teasing banter between the group and the leader. The laughter was hearty and the mood was happy. The women seemed engaged — heart, mind, and soul — with the leaders and their lessons. The whole place throbbed with passion and energy.

I tried to get the little ones to smile as I took their pictures. Since I didn't speak the language, the best I could do was to try to engage them with simple mimes and oversized gestures. One boy cautiously stared at me. He was eating a piece of candy that was too big for his mouth. The candy dripped onto his lips and his mother's shirt. In an effort to get him to smile, I pretended to put candy in my mouth and chew it with exaggerated jaw movements. His eyes opened wide before he hid behind his mom's skirt. Glad I don't make my living as a child photographer. Fortunately, I was working with David; he was a natural with kids and could get them to smile at anything.

David finished filming group shots just as the day's instruction ended. I watched as he slipped his headphones off his head and slung them over the back of the camera. The hint of a smile on his face told me he was happy with the footage he'd taken. Dressed in a long-sleeved khaki shirt and dark cargo pants with a gray belt pack, David could almost have blended into the concrete-colored background, but his eyes were focused intently on the situation and his face reflected the gratification this kind of work brought him. David wasn't the kind of guy to demand a lot of attention, but he was so present in the situation you couldn't overlook his presence in the room.


Excerpted from Unshaken by Dan Woolley Jennifer Schuchmann Copyright © 2011 by Daniel Woolley. Excerpted by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Dan 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.

Jennifer Schuchmann is a News York Times bestselling author of numerous books and he host of the television program Right Now with Jennifer Schuchmann.

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