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Father, son endure quake, long trip home from Haiti

In this photo taken by Sarah Kaspari Baker, formerly of Mitchell and now of Bismarck, N.D., Bruce Blumer lends aid to residents of Haiti during a mission trip to the country last week.

Bruce Blumer is safe, sound and at home, but with a host of sad memories of the earthquake that last week devastated Haiti.

On the Haitian island of La Gonave for mission work when the quake hit, Blumer, of Mitchell, and his son, Ian -- a student at the University of Sioux Falls -- arrived home around 4 a.m. Tuesday. Their post-earthquake journey included lending aid in the wake of the disaster, followed by rides on a lobster boat and a cramped truck, a flight to Florida and, finally, an arrival at the Rapid City Regional Airport.

"Our families and other people had it a lot worse than we did," said Blumer, executive director of the Dakotas United Methodist Foundation. "We didn't feel in jeopardy at all, but it became clear after a couple of days how bad the earthquake was. We had to develop new plans to get off the island."

Today, Blumer feels "blessed and fortunate." But the things he has seen and experienced likely will be with him for the rest of his life.

The quake hit just before 5 p.m. Jan. 12, leveling thousands of buildings in Port-Au-Prince, the country's capital city. A week later, the toll of the devastation is still climbing, with an estimated 200,000 dead and 1.5 million homeless.

Blumer's journey began Jan. 7, when he left to begin his third mission in the impoverished country. In his group were four doctors, three nurses, a pharmacist and others who performed various support tasks. They were stationed on La Gonave, about 60 miles northwest of Port-Au-Prince.

Blumer was working when the earthquake struck.

Wavy, disorienting

"One of my jobs was to deliver medicine to some of the people," he said. "I was walking toward the door and all of a sudden, I heard what sounded like kids running down steps. Then I thought maybe it was a train, but there are no trains in Haiti."

Blumer said his son described it like this: Standing on a waterbed, with a disorienting, wavy feeling.

The quake, which was followed by at least two dozen aftershocks that day and more throughout the week, knocked out cellular telephone service for up to three days. Suddenly, the group found itself without a way to contact anyone outside of La Gonave.

That lack of communication, Blumer said, actually contributed to the group's feeling of well-being.

"We didn't know Port-Au-Prince had had this horrific event," he said. "We didn't know how bad it was. We had clean water and plenty of food, but we really didn't feel in jeopardy at all. But it became clearer after a couple of days how bad the earthquake was."

Eventually, victims came seeking help. By Thursday, it became overwhelming to the group, which was on the island only to provide basic medical needs and was not prepared for trauma care, Blumer said.

"We saw some pretty bad things. They transported people over because they knew we had a clinic. They started coming for medical care," Blumer said. "We had no X-ray equipment, so we really couldn't help a lot of the people."

By Friday, "we decided we were not capable of handling the kind of trauma we were beginning to see."

And as time wore on, members of the group came to another conclusion.

"We had to develop plans to get off the island," Blumer said.

There began the journey home.

The Wesleyan Church runs a large ministry in the town of Anse-a-Galets, and a compound there is host to numerous teams that come to the island for mission work.

Members of Blumer's group went to the compound, about a 25-minute drive away, and asked for aid and Internet access to notify family members they were OK.

Three days later, a courier approached Blumer, telling him representatives from the ministry needed to speak to him.

"They were working their circles and we were working our circles trying to find a way to get these people off the island and home safely," Blumer said.

The first leg of the trip was on a lobster boat, which sailed to a point near Port-Au-Prince. A pickup ride was next, with 10 people and luggage crammed wherever they could sit.

In Port-Au-Prince, an Amway Corporation jet had just flown in with doctors and supplies. The Americans jumped aboard for the trip home, which included stops in Florida, Grand Rapids, Mich., and then Rapid City.


Whereas the island of La Gonave saw damage from the quake, Port-Au-Prince was "pretty devastated, and we didn't go into the worst parts," Blumer said.

"The main highway that leads to Port-Au-Prince is usually jam-packed with people and it was pretty quiet," he said. "The only thing we saw was people leaving the city. ... They were just trying to get out of there.

"There was damage everywhere. It was flattened. There were some pretty horrific smells in some places where there were probably rotting corpses. It was ugly."

At the airport, Blumer saw another pitiful sight: Hundreds of Haitians pressing against the airport fences, hoping to secure food and water.

He said he didn't see any looting or unruliness, but he did see relief pouring into the country.

"We saw planes and supplies there from Brazil, Portugal, France, the United States, China -- all over the world," he said. "It was amazing to see that kind of response."

Adding to the heartache, Blumer and others in his group knew their families would be worried. For several days, the Blumers were unable to contact loved ones to tell them they were safe.

"Our families, friends and people who cared were far more worried than we were," he said. For the first few days, "we didn't know what was going on, but we felt safe. We had food and clean water and were really separated from (learning the scope of the catastrophe). I feel bad that our families and friends were more worried than we were. ... We were safe and fine, but nobody knew it."

Ingrained images

Blumer said he'll always remember the people his group helped in those days immediately following the earthquake.

"First of all, I know there are people we helped at that clinic that wouldn't be alive if the clinic wasn't there," he said. "To be able to help actual victims of the earthquake brought us into the picture that it was a tragic event."

The last night in Port-Au-Prince, Blumer and his son were sleeping in bunkbeds. When his son shifted, it shook the bed and for Blumer, "brought back the whole event."

"I can't imagine what it was like on the main island if you had that kind of loss. Feeling the aftershocks must have been horrific.

"These are a kind and generous people. Last year, they had four hurricanes go through. Now, to face this devastation, you lose adjectives, lose words to even describe it."