Dramatic Photo Shows Florida Firefighter at Haiti School Collapse

 

 

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    West Palm Beach Fire Rescue Lt. Nate Lasseur remembers the look on the face of the six-year-old boy named Enel he helped rescue from the rubble of a Nov. 7 school collapse that claimed close to 100 students.

    "He was very happy," Lasseur said. "He had a big smile on his face and his eyes were just bulging out."

    After removing the boy who was trapped for more than five hours following the tragic collapse of the La Promesse School in Petionville, Haiti, the Haitian-American firefighter/paramedic placed him in a truck that transported him to the local general hospital. Lasseur would try to find the boy at the hospital the following day, but was unable to.

    In the days following the collapse, a dramatic photo taken by Associated Press photographer Ramon Espinosa showing Lasseur holding the boy was featured by news outlets around the world.

    "I feel like God's purpose for me being there was to rescue that kid," he said.

    The day before the collapse, Lasseur arrived in Port-au-Prince, Haiti with a much different mission. At least two times a year he travels to the native country of his parents to donate equipment to its fire service.

    "(Haiti) is such a beautiful country," he said. "There is so much negative that comes out of there, but the people are so good. I have a strong passion and love for the country."

    In 2002 he brought one helmet with him and from that point on he never traveled light to Haiti again.

    During his future visits he would bring suitcases full of helmets, t-shirts and turnout gear with him and in 2005 he created the Caribbean Firefighters Assistance Foundation, which has since been renamed International Firefighters Assistance, Inc.

    With his latest trip planned, Lasseur never imagined what would transpire that weekend when he booked his flight more than a month in advance.

    The Collapse

    Upon arrival in Port-au-Prince, Lasseur contacted Fire Chief Gregory Donald Williams and coordinated when he would meet with him to deliver the equipment.

    The following morning, he stopped by the fire station and soon after the chief received the call alerting him to the collapse. Lasseur said they were unaware of the magnitude of the incident at that time.

    He decided to join the department and observe them in action firsthand; planning on mainly serving as a spectator while enjoying one of his hobbies: photography.

    After dropping off his mother -- who was with him -- he received a phone call from Cap-Haitien Chief Ardouin Zephirin, who also helps coordinate emergency response for the country. He explained the scope of the incident to Lasseur and told him to pick him up so the West Palm Beach firefighter/paramedic could gain access to the scene.

    When they arrived a mile away from the school, Lasseur said there were so many people there that they had to park about a mile away and walk the rest of the way. He had the equipment he brought in tow.

    "When we got on scene it was so chaotic. There were so many people there," he said. "As we continued onto the scene, there were a lot of United Nations workers and police. Haiti is very prepared for civil unrest and rioting, so you always have a lot of police around -- but they weren't ready for something like this."

    Lasseur said it became an all-hands situation, and that the civilians could not be told apart from the first responders. He joined with Chief Zephirin and Chief Williams to assess the situation and devise a plan of action.

    "At that point, we surveyed the scene around the back of the building where the collapse of the school took place," he said. He and the Chief Zepirin also stood on the roof on one side where it had not collapsed in order to get a better understanding of what happened.

    As they did this, rescues were already being made; bodies were already being recovered.

    The scene became so loud and chaotic, that he told Chief Zephirin to call on a police officer to use whistles and air horns to quiet the crowd.

    Finally, there was silence.

    The Rescue

    A young boy's voice could be heard screaming for help. Enel was trapped in void space and right above the space was a crushed body; its foot dangling below.

    "The location of where he was -- there was no visual -- only noise," Lasseur said.

    The front of the boy's head was not accessible as he was positioned with his back to the opening and only had his right hand exposed to his rescuers.

    Once Lasseur was able to communicate with the boy by speaking Haitian Creole, he told him he just wanted to get out.

    Lasseur said the fire department had no extrication tools at its disposable. There were just close to 20 firefighters on the scene, seven of which were flown from Cap-Haitien.

    "Those guys don't have equipment, but they are very talented. They use what they have," he said, mentioning he saw some of the firefighters use car jacks to lift pieces of the rubble.

    "Firefighters; we adapt and overcome," he said. "The firefighters in Haiti, their whole lives are about adapting and overcoming."

    Kyrk Baker, a volunteer with the Baptist Mission, had a Sawzall that he began to use with Lasseur's direction. He cut pieces of rebar, which the two men used to chisel away at the concrete that trapped the boy.

    As the two men made progress, they used pieces of wood to help expand the hole.

    "(Enel) began telling me how thirsty he was, but we could not give him water, because we could not access his head," he said. Lasseur decided to set up an IV with Lactated Ringer's to Enel's free arm. Since there were no tourniquets available, he used a shoestring that was given to him by another rescuer.

    When the boy was hydrated, Lasseur took out the IV and bandaged his arm.

    As hours passed, more progress was made and the crew members were finally able to free Enel to the point where they could turn him around, but his legs were still trapped.

    They continued chipping away and little by little Enel could move his legs. Lasseur directed him to push himself up using his arms, and he was able to remove himself from the void.

    "Everybody just wanted this kid out," he said. "It was agonizing to hear him screaming. Whenever he would get quiet everyone would get scared."

    The collapse of the school building occurred around 10 a.m. and Enel was found at approximately 3:30 p.m. It would take over five hours to free him from the rubble.

    During the more than 15 hours Lasseur was on scene, four children were rescued from the rubble. He said everyone was involved, even Espinosa contributed to the rescues.

    "There were so many people influential in saving this kid's life. I definitely didn't do this all by myself," Lasseur said.

    The Aftermath

    On Saturday he returned to the scene to assist with recovery efforts along with French firefighters and the Fairfax County, Va. Search and Rescue Team.

    He said that while the first day he worked off of pure adrenaline, the second day dragged on. As the dangerous conditions the collapsed structure posed worsened, Lasseur left the scene after helping recover close to 20 bodies.

    "I've been a firefighter for almost 12 years and this is definitely the biggest incident I've been involved in," he said. "I don't think my department has ever been involved in anything with 100 deaths without it being a natural disaster.

    "It was really amazing being there at that particular time. I just thank God that I was there to help."

    During the rescue, he called his wife Gina, who was back at home in Florida, to let her know what was going on. It was the first time she learned of the collapse since it hadn't made national news yet. He still didn't understand the magnitude of the collapse.

    "Things didn't kick in until Sunday night," he said. "At first I didn't really know the whole death count numbers or the magnitude of it. I knew it was a big deal for Haiti, but I didn't realize it was international news till I got back to the airport."

    While at the airport he saw the photo Espinosa took of him featured on CNN.

    Giving Back to Haiti

    While in Haiti, Lasseur's mother Gertrude was in the country doing missionary work for the Bethany Baptist Missionary Society, which his late father Rev. Paul F. Lasseur started. He said he traveled a lot with his parents growing up, going on missions, but it was never something he felt as connected to as they did.

    He said he got the idea of aiding Haiti's fire service after he observed the equipment and conditions the country's firefighters worked in.

    "Every fire department in the U.S. has a room of equipment they aren't using," he said. Since he started, his department has switched out their pants and helmets for newer versions.

    He asked fellow firefighters for donations before he would make each trip down. During his trips he would have the Haitian firefighters pose for photos while wearing the gear. Lasseur said his co-workers really got a kick out of seeing firefighters from another country wearing their helmets or turnouts.

    From there, the project just got bigger. The Florida Association of Voluntary Agencies for Caribbean Action financed one of his trips in 2007. He was joined by CPR instructor Gayl Nye from Vero Beach, Fla. and Capt. Lee Silverman and Capt. Richard Steer from Montgomery County, Md. Fire Rescue to help provide training.

    He said that what happened on Nov. 7 has helped him justify what he's been doing for the past five years.

    "It doesn't feel like I'm just throwing a grain of sand in the ocean. Just the little bit I do, I can see a difference already," he said. "I tell young Haitian-Americans that whatever you do, you can use it to help others in the country."

    Lasseur's next big project is bringing a fire station to his parent's hometown of Croix-des-Bouquets. He said the mayor has already agreed to build a station and to pay for at least a dozen firefighters.

    Currently Port-au-Prince and Cap-Haitien are the only fire departments in all of Haiti, according to Lasseur.

    Lasseur said there used to be more fire departments in Haiti, but that officials have told him in the past that the leaders of the country's fire service stepped down because of a lack of support.

    "(Chief Williams and Chief Zephirin) are there because they know if they leave -- what's going to happen?," he said. "Someone has to look out for these guys."

    Lasseur also plans to have CERT (Community Emergency Response) Teams created for parts of the country.

    The country's fire service is in such a need, he said, that he hopes his organization's efforts are only the beginning.

    "Sometimes we take things for granted here. Even with incident command. You realize when you don't have that -- it's absolutely amazing. I don't know how these guys function."

    He said he wants others to know about the cause and everyone who has been involved in supporting Haiti's fire service -- even before he was.

    "It's not about me at all. If that was the case I would have been bragging about it when I started," he said. "Regardless of getting exposure or not, I'd still be doing it, helmet by helmet."

    Monetary donations can be mailed to:

    International Firefighters Assistance, Inc.
    6742 Forest Hill Blvd. Suite #108
    West Palm Beach, FL 33413

 

For your donation to be tax-deductible, all checks should be made payable to: WPBFOF with "IFA Refief Donation" written in the memo line.

For information on how to donate equipment, e-mail ifa@ifarelief.org or call 561-247-6230.

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