We got into Port au Prince late Sunday after weather delays caused by Hurricane Flora, the storm we had set out to cover, and because of a freak accident on the Kingston Airport apron just as we were preparing to take off for Haiti. The wash of a big jet taxing by blew one of the ground crewmen servicing our plane against the fuselage, snapping the belly antenna. The startled crewman was unhurt but it took forever to find a replacement for the broken antenna insulator. The we in this case was a platoon of newsmen. Flora attracted wide coverage because it was the first hurricane spotted by a satellite. The new weather forecasting tool was expected to give people in the path of tropical disturbances more time to prepare for the coming blow.
Shortly after checking into the Hotel Sans Souci in Port au Prince, I met two staff members from Life magazine, a reporter and a photographer, who had just flown in from Miami in a chartered plane. They discussed the weather with Swifty, the pilot, and after deciding to try for an aerial look at the damage asked me to join them. It was a wild flight. Visibility was poor as sheets of rain beat against us. We tried to remain cheerful as powerful gusts of wind sent the plane tossing about like a leaf. At one point Swifty turned around and asked me if anyone had ever told me I looked like Jose Ferrer. I replied affirmatively. We all tried to hang on. The plane shook violently, dropped several hundred feet at a time, and our cameras at times flew off the floor and bounced off the ceiling of the plane. We had not been in the air long before I lost my breakfast, which went into a sick bag. I found myself covered with ice cold sweat. At this point I punched Swifty in the back and asked him what I looked like. He took a fast look, and said, "You look like a pretty sick Jose Ferrer to me now." We had to turn back right away; it was no use.
Later in the day, after questioning George, the owner of the hotel, Bernie Eismann of CBS and I decided to organize an expedition into the area hit by Flora. Eismann went off to hunt Jeeps or Land Rovers, and I went off to the police station to get a laissez passer for seven of us: three CBS, two LIFE, and UPI and myself. We planned to head for Petit Goave, one of the areas reportedly hard hit, and it was estimated that should we be able to make it the trip would take three hours each way. We figured 15 minutes would be enough "shooting time" and we could head back and get our pictures out on the 9:25 Monday morning plane to Kingston. The next plane left Tuesday afternoon.
We made plans to strike out at 2 a.m., but last minute preparations kept some of us up past midnight. The hotel awakened most of us on time. However, it took a while for us to discover some of the others were still asleep and to get them out of bed. Eismann had only been able to get one Jeep, beat up at that, and with tires so slick you could see the canvas in places, and had been forced to hire two regular cars. We gassed them up and got going at 3 a.m.
We had gone only a few miles when we discovered the road inundated for about a quarter of a mile. We drove the Jeep in first and made it through and were followed by the other two cars. They made it too. But we immediately ran into another section of road under water, which we managed to negotiate too, thanks to the mysterious ways of providence. We went off the road since we couldn't see it as we drove through the water and accidentally ran onto a railroad track that ran parallel to the road. We stayed on the tracks until we got out of the flooded area. Further along the way we hit three creeks that had evidently become rampaging rivers for a brief period. They were already drying but rocks were strewn all over. We moved the ones we could and drove around others as we made our way across.
Flora's sudden parting blasts continued lashing the trees, and short unexpected rain squalls swept across the area in blustery confusion. Haiti was still being punished by the hurricane's wildly flailing tail.
About 45 minutes out of Port au Prince we hit the river, apparently a normally tame stream. But since it was a bit fast and too deep at the normal crossing point, we walked across the railroad bridge and investigated. The road, as far as we could see, was completely under water beyond the river, gleaming a faint silver in the pre dawn light. Bernie impatiently took over the wheel of the Jeep from our Haitian driver, cowboyed the Jeep up a steep embankment to the railroad tracks and over and headed for the river across a sugar cane field. He fairly shot across the first small branch, but once his momentum was gone painfully geared down until he was barely creeping along in four wheel drive in low gear across the wider part, inching along and finally creeping out on the opposite bank. I was the only one across the bridge when he got over. As the others started lugging the television equipment across the bridge, he and I went ahead to "reconnoiter." We did not reconnoiter for long. With a gentle drop we eased into very soft mud. The Jeep kept sinking until the front axle was below the surface and the back wheels practically dangling in the air. Two men nearby tried to help us get the Jeep out but it was a fruitless effort. I went off and in the half darkness began looking for help. Eventually I rounded up three men, one with a shovel, and we began to work. A few more men came and soon our colleagues appeared, some of their equipment on a borrowed horse. They had abandoned the cars at the river.
We dug, pushed and eventually drove the Jeep out and started moving again, but our two Life friends who had chosen to walk up ahead alone were left without a ride. We passed them without saying a word; they had refused to help. One of them got mad later. Still, I don't know where we could have put them. We had all the television equipment and the owner driver of the Jeep in back. Eismann, UPI's Heaton and I were in the front seat. The other CBS men, Seymour Wolen and Pat Kingham, were sitting on the hood, and our guide was hanging on Eismann's side of the Jeep. We bounced, sloshed, and skittered along the water covered highway, drove on the railroad tracks when we could and made frequent stops to get into four wheel drive and often jumped off to lighten the load and to push. After several miles of driving through the water and on the railroad tracks we got back on the road, an uneven ribbon of loosely packed boulders after the torrential rains.
The boys, on the hood were bouncing, and once I saw the bottom of one bounce up three or four times in a row not less than four inches from the hood, which eventually because of this pounding became a shallow pan. At another point Eismann did not see the water coming up and hit it so fast that Wolen and Kinghan got their bottoms completely soaked, an occasion that brought forth from them a string of oaths that the engine's noise and the Jeeps rattles failed to drown out.
At 6:30 a.m. we reached the outskirts of the small town of Leogane. The road there was blocked and we were sent to the police. They turned out to be very friendly and insisted we talk to the commandant, whom they went after. Meanwhile, a policeman showed us the Simone Duvalier Market, which had been inaugurated less than two months earlier. Its corrugated asbestos roof was gone, blown off by the hurricane winds. Food and other goods were scattered all over. The few people around were scared and nervous, they kept saying the hurricane was coming back. People here as at the roadblock and police station told us some 50 people had been killed at nearby Macombe. Most, they said, had been drowned.
For having been awakened at that dismal hour and having to look at such a cheerless landscape, the commandant was in good spirits. He was impressed with our determination to proceed and quickly found us a local guide among his police force, whom we put in the back of the Jeep along with the Jeep's owner and the television gear.
We drove back along the road to Port au Prince for a short distance and turned off into a cane field where the going became slower and slower, even in four wheel drive until the Jeep with a muffled sigh like noise died as it settled in the mire. We left the owner with instructions to round up help, get the Jeep out and turn it around. We continued on foot and went our own ways after agreeing to meet at a specified place later.
It was clearly evident the hurricane had passed through here. Some parts of the cane field were blown completely clean. All the banana trees were on the ground. The coconut palms were battered and broken. Few large trees had withstood the beating; most were on the ground and the scant ones still upright lacked most of their branches. Breadfruit, coconuts, bananas and mangoes lay all over the ground. We found a pitiful lean to of boards, twisted tin roofing and branches. A family huddled inside. The house had been blown down and now they tried to sleep, piled on each other, too scared even to talk. We saw the floors of other shacks but no sign of the houses, all of which had been tossed about and swept away. One shack with a tin roof was crushed by a large tree that fell on it. Another had been picked up and blown against a palm tree, killing the owner who was found dead in the wreckage. A lonely dog whimpered under a table supporting the remains of a demolished house. All that remained of most houses was the earthen floor, a hardened smooth rectangular spot. This was Macombe, and as well as we could determine, something like 40 people died there, mostly by drowning. Twenty one died in one small area. Here a mound of mud covered a body, and two sticks shoved into the mound the only evidence that someone had been quickly covered over on the spot. Most of the bodies had been washed away.
By now it was light. There was plenty of good light for pictures despite the dark overcast sky. It was 8 a.m. when I returned to the spot where we had agreed to meet. Eismann was finishing his take. He was doing a "stand up" before the remains of a hut amidst the fallen palms and the scattered coconuts and breadfruit.
"This is what is left of Macombe," Eismann was saying into the mike while Kinghan filmed and Wolen recorded.
The "stand up" over, we decided to leave, to try to make the 9:25 plane with our takes.
An ex Marine Jeep driver, Eismann was eminently qualified for the challenge. The film crew decided he and I should try for the plane. We left Wolen and Kinghan dismantling the TV set up as we rushed back to the Jeep. But we got lost and by the time we found it Wolen and Kinghan—were coming up to it from another direction, sloshing through the mud with their heavy load of cameras, tripod, and sound equipment.
We had 20 paysans helping us again, and we feared we were in for another nightmare. We had had a hell of a time paying the ones who had helped us earlier. Every time we paid one, it seemed another open hand reached forth from the darkness, and we were already out of small bills. However, it was a good thing the paysans were available. The Jeep owner who had rounded them up announced that the Jeep would not start. We pushed the thing back and forth for a distance of about fifty feet—very slowly in the soft mud and we passionately cursed the slick tires that most of the time just glided along. But finally the engine caught. With the help of the mob we'd hired we turned it around and skittered and skidded all the way back to the main road, assisted by the running gang of paysans who got together with a catchy Creole chant to give the chugging and wildly careening and skittered Jeep a push everytime it got stuck and to scream, both in fear and in glee, whenever it knocked some of them over as it skidded wildly to one side or the other. It was a hell of a ride and in my brief looks back I could see the snaky tire trails and paysans getting up from the mud.
We dropped the police guide off at the roadblock, and the five of us, the two TV crewmen, the Jeep owner driver, Eismann and I, began the long road back.
We straddled the old railroad most of the way, but also bounced wildly, and sometimes out of control, on the washed out "boulder road" as Eismann alternately gave the Jeep the gun or ground down to a near halt while I as co pilot—with one lever in each hand—shifted the four wheel drive and low low gears.
We finally got back to the river, now slightly higher since we crossed it earlier. It was daylight and we could see a tremendous number of people on the Port au Prince side. The buses and trucks could only get that far out of the capital and people were having to walk on from there. Entrepreneurs had set up a small market and were selling bananas, bread, some native sweets, and avocados. The two TV crewmen, the owner driver and I got out while Eismann prepared to hurl the Jeep across the river again. I ran to the railroad bridge and hopped across, jumping from metal tie to metal tie and got over in time to get pictures of his drive across.
By then some 30 cheering Haitians were in the river with him, pushing and yelling, and the crowd on the opposite bank who had not seen anyone even dare try to cross the river until then began cheering and clapping as Eismann whirred and churned, got stuck, was pushed out, surged forward, sank, and rose again, pitching and rolling.
The Haitians on the railroad embankment on the opposite bank were wild with emotion. They waved their arms and jumped, screamed encouragement and marvelled at the way the Jeep kept going. "Quelle machine! Quelle machine! "—What a machine! What a machine! they shouted.
Meanwhile the sugar cane stalks fell before Eismann's implacable vehicle and alongside it and behind it an occasional paysan who either lost his footing or was thrown back by the wildly careening, bucking and, skidding Jeep. They fell with a tremendous splash, arms flailing. Eismann suddenly came on solid ground, gained the railroad embankment and came roaring over onto the tracks as the Haitian audience fell back in panic. Then they let out a big roar and completely surrounded the Jeep, loosing a stream of Creole we assumed was praise for the New York cowboy and his "what a machine!" Once their exuberance had subsided we started out again, the crew on the hood, the three of us inside, down the railroad track until it disappeared under water. Then again through the long stretch of road under water we had successfully traversed before, still riding, pushing and rocking the protesting Jeep, which raced, groaned, idled, and gnashed its gears while its continuously reversing wheels covered us with mud that long before had seeped clear through to our bodies. Despite the many times we got stuck, we made it again. We dropped off the TV crew and the heavy equipment near the outskirts of Port au Prince. Eismann, the owner of the Jeep, and I began the mad dash to the airport. Soon we began running into traffic and many people walking on the road. Our watches kept ticking: 9:10, 9:15, 9:20, 9:25, 9:26... Eismann was sick, but we kept madly on. I was sick too but kept telling Eismann that the plane was always late. He was somewhat encouraged though deep inside I'd almost had it myself. The Jeep owner took the wheel as we entered Port au Prince and we began a sickening swinging in between and around cars and pedestrians, lurching and skidding dangerously while Eismann and I at the top of our lungs competed with the horn to try to get the pedestrians to move out of the way. As we got near the airport the Jeep's engine died. Eismann and I jumped out and along with a couple of helping hands gave it one desperate push that coughed life into the overheated engine one more time. By then we really didn't think we could make the plane, but we couldn't give up either.
We were approaching the airport as the Jeep swung around the crowded open air market and headed right for a group of people crossing the street. I heard Eismann scream. The driver slammed on the brakes, which though wet caught enough to send the Jeep skidding sideways. I thought we had knocked a girl down. We couldn't have missed her. Eismann gasped, "We couldn't have missed her by more than a quarter of an inch." I looked back and saw the girl in the red dress was still standing and to hear a huge cry go up from the crowd around the market.
We raced on to the airport and found the place jammed with cars. Jumping out before the Jeep stopped, Eismann and I ran into the building and to the Panam counter and asked, "Is the plane still here?" It was late all right; it hadn't even arrived. We allowed as to how lucky we were. We had plenty of time to pack our film and get it out on the day's only flight.
It was 10:45 a.m. when I got back to the Sans Souci. Breakfast at the hotel tasted good and an ensuing shower felt better. I remembered it was my birthday; so I had a drink.