AFTER FIVE DAYS BURIED ALIVE IN HAITI, UN WORKER RECALLS MOMENT OF RESCUE
25 January - For five days, Jens Kristensen felt like he was living in a coffin. Under the twisted mountain of rubble of the United Nations headquarters in Haiti, the aid worker was enclosed in a five-foot long space so dark that it made no difference if his eyes were open or closed.
And yet the 48-year-old Danish national somehow survived this ordeal, dehydrated and sore but with little more than a bruise on his upper arm and a scratch on his right hand when a search team from the United States rescued him on 17 January.
Three days after being rescued, Mr. Kristensen was back at work as a senior humanitarian officer coordinating the relief effort between the Department of Peacekeeping (DPKO), the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) and the outlying agencies.
“If you see the devastation in Haiti at the moment, it is enormous. I cannot just evacuate. I feel physically sore after five days on a concrete slab but mentally I am strong enough to do it. And certainly at a time when the country needs so much assistance,” he said, his sentence cut off by the roar of an aid plane landing in Port-au-Prince.
“They land regularly now,” Mr. Kristensen continued. “This is still very much a crisis situation. I see that the relief effort is gearing up. It's more organized and reaching more and more people.”
The relief effort has kept Mr. Kristensen so active that while staff counselling in Port-au-Prince is available, he has not sought it.
“I think I can handle it, but you never know. That will come to the test in a few weeks. Right now I'm busy. It keeps me occupied. Maybe when I'm not busy there will be a reaction. That's what all the people tell me. Maybe it's true. I don't know.”
Mr. Kristensen worked through the 2002 earthquake in Afghanistan, the 1999 quake in Turkey and one in Ecuador in 1987. He said he had been able to process the crisis and the changing environment but “nothing as traumatic as being buried alive for five days under dirt and not knowing if you'll live.”
At 4:53 p.m. on 12 January, Mr. Kristensen was in his office on the third-floor of the five-storey Christopher Hotel which housed the MINUSTAH headquarters. He was sitting at his desk reading documents for a meeting the next day. The earthquake started with a minor tremor, and then four seconds later the major quake hit.
“I debated in a split second whether to run for the door or hide under the table. The door was closed and I thought that maybe it was too far and I would be caught under falling debris, so I hid under the table.”
He said that a bookshelf fell towards the desk, miraculously preventing him and the desk from being crushed.
“I was confined as if in a small coffin. Five feet in length. Maybe a foot tall. And a foot and a half wide. I could move a little to the side and bend my neck.”
Mr. Kristensen said that during the aftershocks, he scrunched under the desk, hoping that the roof would not suddenly give in. When quiet, he used the light from his mobile phone to look around.
“I looked for what could potentially have fallen down that I could use to inform people or make myself more comfortable. I thought if I banged, a search and rescue team would find me.”
Among the items found were a jar of instant coffee and an envelope. Mr. Kristensen saved the coffee in the envelope and his urine in the jar.
“It doesn't taste or smell particularly well but it could have prolonged my survival by a couple of days.”
Mr. Kristensen said that he willed himself to stay calm by not moving a lot and by focusing on attracting help. His greatest psychological challenge was keeping a hold on time.
“You lose your perception. You don't know if you slept five minutes or five hours. It is difficult to remain sane and calm when you don't know the day and time.”
Mr. Kristensen admits that he considered the possibility that he might not be found.
“I wondered how long it takes to die and what a horrible way to die. If you have an accident, at least you die quickly. Here you have days and days and days on end. What a horrible end.”
On Sunday around 6:30 in the morning, an oil leak shut off the hum of generators and Mr. Kristensen heard muffled voices some 12 feet above where he was buried.
“I almost thought no, I'm too tired to bang and shout. I could feel that it was more of an effort, but I thought – you have to take every single chance. It doesn't matter how many times it didn't work. This could be the once chance and it would be really, really stupid if you don't do it.”
Six hours later, Mr. Kristensen saw the faces of his rescue team. [Watch video]
“It was so amazing. I cannot explain it. It really was like I had received a second birthday,” he recalled, laughing. “I am eternally grateful and in awe of the search teams who drop everything at an hour's notice and go to faraway places and put themselves in danger to save people.”
Mr. Kristensen, who met with his rescuers on Friday, is one of 132 people rescued by international teams.
He also described the support from friends and colleagues, and from people around the world whom he has never met.
“The hugs and kisses and genuine happiness I have seen from people here on seeing me again, and on knowing I'm alive has been wonderful. It is so amazing the support and the comradeship. You feel part of a larger family. I am very, very appreciative and thankful for their support.”
Mr. Kristensen acknowledged that he has a new opportunity in life, but he does not have plans to radically change.
“I'm not going to put on a backpack and hike the Himalayas. For me, it's a mental change. There are so many things you postpone because they are not a priority, especially when you are on mission. I like to travel. I like cultural things. I like to learn new things. Of course I will continue to work and perform the way that I do, but also to see more of my friends and family.”