Account by Stuart P. Sarasin------------------------------
The Marquette Haiti Relief Team arrived in Ft. Lauderdale Saturday after traveling from Marquette, Michigan on Delta Airlines. Over half the team arrived early, with the split of the team necessary due to the large amount of supplies necessary to travel with them. The first group, headed by medical leader Doctor Dan Hardie, went directly to the staging area set up at the Opa Locka airport, near Miami. They met with flight crew leader Bill DaSilva, Delta Airline captain and owner of the Grumman Albatross, and began loading medical supplies on the vintage ex-Navy seaplane, uniquely capable of landing in open sea in waves up to four feet.
The remainder of the group departed Marquette late in the day and arrived in Ft. Lauderdale in the late evening. Additional team member Corinne Baldwin Peimer, daughter of another team member, surgeon Clayton Peimer of Marquette, arrived from Oregon and met with the entire team to make last minute preparations. The early decision to remain fluid in plans and decisions continues to dominate the mission. After several destination hospital locations changed due to changing needs, the number of medical team members able to travel on the first trip was reduced to six, due to the substantial load of medical supplies and uncertain landing conditions in open water off of Haiti.
Sunday morning, after fueling and final preflight preparations, the giant Albatross taxied out, about to set out on a critical humanitarian relief mission, the sort of duty for which it was originally designed. As a result of the high takeoff weight, the aircraft struggled to become airborne in the hot Florida air, with Captain DaSilva struggling to climb the relief crew to a minimum altitude. The nearly-five hour flight in the vintage craft; loud, slow and with spartan interior, was met with an appreciation for the capability of the ex-Navy aircraft. With vantage points in the cockpit as well as the nose port viewing area, the medical team was able to get a unique view of the Caribbean from an altitude of only 1,000 feet. The sheer weight of the crew and supplies, as well as a strong headwind which reduced the speed of the 140 mph Albatross even further, led to the long flight at such a low altitude. Fortunately, the air was clear and smooth as the temperature in the non-air-conditioned aircraft exceeded ninety degrees.
After a long, slow climb to clear the mountains of western Haiti, the Albatross descended into the area of the port city of Les Cayes. The flight crew completed a reconnaissance inspection of the landing area, flying low over the city and bay selecting a suitable landing site. Activity in the port city was abuzz as the sight of the low-flying Navy seaplane caught the attention of the entire area. The first landing approach was stable and on-target, yet the rush of local boats and canoes into the bay forced a pull-up and return for landing. Fortunately, the small watercraft were separated enough that a landing clearway was available on the second approach. The rough seas and large swells tested the limits of the Albatross and crew, as the aircraft was launched by a swell on the first touchdown, forced again skyward as the veteran seaplane pilot DaSilva used every bit of his experience and ability to wrestle the ship through several more oscillations and high sea waves to safely bring the relief mission to a stop in the turbulent Caribbean sea.
The serenity of the long, scenic flight was exploded by the flurry of activity that met the crew as they attempted to approach the shore and anchor in the bay. With thousands of local residents rushing to the shore, many jumping into the bay and swimming toward the strange site that was the ex-Navy Albatross, as well as dozens of small watercraft approaching the sturdy yet surface-fragile aircraft, the team members struggled to communicate to the non-English speaking residents to remain clear of the aircraft and especially not allow small canoes and boats to puncture the aircraft's skin. Fortunately, with a combination of local residents' slight understanding of english and Dr. Dan Hardie's usable command of the Creole language, improved greatly by his bushing up by studying the Creole dictionary on the 5-hour flight, minimal order was achieved as the self-contained dinghy was inflated and Dr. Hardie and two team members made their way to shore. The U.N. security force, luckily having a presence in Les Cayes, was able to set up a security perimeter with their significant numbers and allow the off-load of crew and supplies from the relief ship. The transfer of the entire cargo load was arduous at best in the rough sea waters, as concern mounted over the possibility of damage to the craft from the local boat that was offered for assistance. Fortunately, the load was safely transferred and the last of the crew boarded the ancient, but sturdy, boat.
The flight crew wasted no time in preparing the Albatross for take-off, as the team members on the ground coordinated with local residents to clear the take-off lane. DaSilva and the flight crew of three battled the high waves and turbulent sea to return the aircraft to a more natural element as they lifted off the water and began the long return flight to South Florida. DaSilva would later describe the entire experience in a single phrase, exclaiming, "That was sporting!"
Meanwhile, the initial medical team members were met with a hero's welcome as hundreds of local residents, many children, rushed to the streets to catch a glimpse of the spectacle. Cheers went up as the crew rounded every turn, slowly making their way to the Hopital Immaculee Conception (Hospital Immaculate Conception) to meet up with the local medical staff. Back at the landing site the remainder of the crew awaited further instructions and made friendships with the much-appreciative locals. Handshakes and smiles were evident throughout the crowd as the battered yet resilient Haitian locals greeted the relief members. After the crew was re-assembled they conducted a tour of the facility and supplies and began plans for the week-long mission, on what will assuredly prove to test the limits of supplies and equipment as the dedicated crew of doctors and staff prepare to supply aid to a ravaged country by helping residents of this Haitian port city.
During preparations for the mission, members' health was a concern as proper immunizations and anti-malaria medication was provided as well as provisions for sleeping in infested areas - plastic sheeting, special bedding and mosquito nets - as well as means of purifying drinking water. Fortunately, former Upper Peninsula residents Virginia and John Bell, who live in the port city of Les Cayes and still spend part of the year in Paradise, Michigan, operate the Belle Maison, a secure home for volunteers working with the mission Centre International de Recherche et d'Action pour le Developpement Durable, or CIRADD. The Bells graciously offered their home to the entire relief mission, providing sleeping quarters, sanitary conditions and food throughout the week. The Bells are keeping close contact with their daughter, Jayme Bell, an elementary music teacher in the Marquette School District. Additionally, local resident Jean Michelle Baquin, a local Les Cayes resident, is proving to be invaluable in providing information, translation and coordination efforts with the relief team and local medical officials. Baquin had to opportunity to study in the United States, a result of the support of the local missionary. Baquin's diverse study included opportunities in Iowa, Illinois and South Dakota. Baquin holds a P.H.D. and returned to his home town, struggling to bring significant change to the infrastructure of Haiti.
As the medical team settled in, the flight crew continued the challenge of the entire mission as they made their way back to Florida, now proceeding in the ever darkening skies of the Caribbean. The strong headwinds suffered during the flight to Haiti necessitated a fuel stop in the Turks and Caicos Islands. After refueling, the Albatross lumbered into the sky once again, but shortly after takeoff, enroute to Florida, the aircraft suffered an electrical failure which affected the navigation gyro instruments, and, additionally, had a warning light that led to a forced landing in Nassau, the Bahamas. The crew spent the night, repaired the electrical problem and headed back to Ft. Lauderdale. Plans are under way to facilitate the transport of the remaining supplies and medical crew aboard the Albatross to Les Cayes, hopefully Monday afternoon.
Monday, the medical team is exhaustively working under extremely difficult conditions and a lack of supplies and proper tools to provide emergency medical care to patients, some severely injured in the earthquake and waiting nearly two weeks with multiple fractures and injuries that have gone untreated, with little or no attention to injuries and often times no available pain medication. The team will work long into the evening, perhaps through the night, as the remaining crew members anxiously await their opportunity to join their team and provide additional care and support.Click here for more on this story.