Little hope left for Canadians trapped under Haiti's Montana Hotel

By Jorge Barrera, Canwest News ServiceJanuary 19, 2010

PORT-AU-PRINCE — Chilean national police detective Adolfo Valdiva picks up a chunk of concrete and tosses it over a ledge. Nearby sit the remains of several cars crushed by a massive slab from the demolished Montana Hotel, the last known location of nine Canadians shortly before last Tuesday's earthquake shattered Port-au-Prince and its people.

The chunk hits another block and breaks apart. Valdiva shakes his head. He kicks another one over. It does the same thing.

"They have no building regulations," said Valdiva, who handles the cadaver dogs.

The Montana Hotel was a favourite destination for foreigners visiting Port-au-Prince. It sits in an upper section of the city where, before the earthquake, it must have been an oasis from the bustle of the capital, with houses overlooking a lush green valley across rising to the edges of the municipality of Petionville.

It is now the centre of a major recovery operation involving crews from Brazil, Chile and Iceland, among others.

The hotel is completely flattened. It was built on a foundation of brick and sand, said Valdiva. Very little rebar was used to reinforce the concrete — which, on close inspection, appears soft enough to pull apart with bare hands.

"If it rains . . ." said Valdiva, and sighs without finishing his sentence.

His team has pulled four bodies from the hotel. One woman, the owner's wife, was pulled out alive Sunday, having survived by drinking her own urine, he said.

He doubts there are any survivors left.

"We've searched with dogs and listened if there were voices," he said. "No positive results."

Valdiva said they face a difficult task retrieving those that remain. Heavy machinery is needed.

"We have accessed various points where there are bodies, but we can't get them out," he said.

Valdiva said the hotel could hold about 180 people and it was near 45 per cent capacity when the earthquake hit. "A lot of people, a lot of people," he said.

Canadians Anne Chabot, Alexandre Bitton, Claude Chamberland, Roger Gosselin, Katherine Hadley, Anne Labelle, former MP Serge Marcil, Richard Proteau and Paquerette Tremblay were last known to be at the hotel before the earthquake.

One of Valdiva's superiors said 22 people have been taken alive out of the building and 10 bodies have been recovered. As of Saturday morning none of the bodies were Canadian, he said — before asking a UN soldier from the Philippines to escort a reporter off the site.

Foreign Affairs would not comment on whether the bodies of Canadians have been pulled from the wreckage.

At a corner, near the entrance to the hotel, is a sign pointing to the Port-au-Prince headquarters for the Centre de Gestion des fonds Locaux de la Co-operation Canadienne en Haiti, where the body of Helene Rivard, a consultant with the Canadian International Development Agency, is buried beneath the collapsed building.

Work continues on figuring out a way to retrieve her body. A guard at the site said several search and rescue workers had been at the site over the past two days.

Nearby, two Uruguayan television crews film near a house where an Uruguayan national lived. The house tumbled like a toy down an embankment. A Guatemalan crew was down scouring through the rubble for survivors.

Mario Pereze, the chief medical officer for a team from the Guatemalan search and rescue unit, was co-ordinating the search. He said the zone presented a complicated set of problems for search and rescue crews.

"We are on a mountain, we can't bring in machinery. It is all manual labour . . . the tools we have are not able to break through the structures where bodies are pinned," he said.

Some may never be recovered.

"There is a risk we won't be able to get them out," he said, overlooking a valley and the edges of Petionville, which sits southeast of Port-au-Prince's centre.

In Petionville, the street vendors are out selling luggage, sunglasses, shampoo and bananas. Locals lug large bags of U.S. imported rice that once went for $20 U.S. a bag, and now goes for up to $45 U.S., said Alex Celan, 27, as he inched his way through the narrow streets jammed with cars, trucks, motorcycles and people.

Many are also relying on a barter economy, trading food for water, said Celan. His wife lives in Montreal — he's hoping to join her.

Nearby, in the slums, residents fill jugs with dirty water spewing from broken pipes in the middle of narrow, rutted roads. Around them, cinder block buildings have been smashed to rubble and dust, after falling atop one another like dominoes. The stench of death floats on the breeze. A search and rescue crew, following a slender lead that someone heard voices in a collapsed church two days ago, digs through the rubble.

Local neighbourhoods have created committees, pooling resources from their remaining stores of food and water and providing security. Those whose houses are still standing let the homeless sleep in their yards.

Everyone is sleeping outdoors. Local authorities have warned residents to stay out of their homes until Friday to avoid needless deaths in unsafe structures.

The angst grows. Food and water remain scarce. Aid is trickling in.

"They (on the outside) don't understand the reality we live," said Celan.

Standing in the backyard of his home with cracks running through the walls, Daniel St.Victor, 24, said the Haitian people only want the basics.

"We need food, we need water, that's it," he said, his face a map of anger and sadness.

"It is over for us here. We have no schools, no jobs. It's done."

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