Mixed emotions in Haiti

Monday, January 25, 2010

Germiston - Ekurhuleni Emergency Services officials, who were part of the Rescue South Africa team to Haiti, have returned to the country and have described their experiences there.

Battling to hold back his tears, William Ntladi, who is a station manager in the metro, said the experience was an emotional one, that no-one could have prepared enough for.

"It was a bag of mixed emotions. I saw many sights, good and bad ... but time allowed for no grief; we were just concentrating on saving lives," he told BuaNews.

Ntladi, who together with Tshediso Leotlela, David Tshabalala, and Collen van Niekerk spent seven days in quake-torn Haiti, returned home to a hero's welcome.

They were part of a 40-man team which included a structural engineer, doctors, dog handlers and rescue practitioners who brought hope to the devastated people of Haiti.

The team searched six sites including the UN headquarters, a collapsed hotel and residential areas. They uncovered over 30 bodies on their first day in the capital.

The team said the working conditions were very tough because of extreme heat and high humidity.

Leotlela said there was still chaos and confusion when the team first arrived, adding that getting anything done was a huge challenge.

"People were out in the street because they were afraid to go back into their houses."

He told BuaNews that the Haiti trip was their most difficult mission, adding that communication and getting equipment around was difficult.

"The devastation was mind boggling, with no sign of life, only a litter of corpses and the sick stench of decomposed bodies along the way."

Van Niekerk recalled that the first time he saw real grief was when he came across two young siblings who had lost both parents.

"That minute I just couldn't hold back my tears... they just started flowing."

Tshabalala, the other team member said: "I'm just very pleased to be part of the South African response; it's great to have made some sort of difference out there."

Officials estimate that as many as 200 000 people were killed and two million made homeless following the quake on 12 January.

Ekurhuleni Mayor Ntombi Mekgwe said South Africans should all be proud of the brave men who worked tirelessly to help the Haitians in very difficult and dangerous conditions.

"They have been working in extremely challenging conditions and their achievements in Haiti are testament to their exceptional commitment, professionalism and dedication."

"The experience gained during the rescue mission in Haiti will assist the city in strengthening its own capacity and ensuring adequate cover in any eventuality."

The team is being provided with counselling to help them deal with the trauma they may have experienced in Haiti.