A second New Jersey church group returns home after being flown out of quake-shattered Haiti

Friday, January 15, 2010

A second NJ church group home from Haiti

LAWRENCEVILLE, N.J. — A second New Jersey church delegation has arrived home from Haiti, where they were caught in Tuesday’s devastating earthquake.

And while happy to be back with their loved ones, group members said Friday their hearts and minds remain in Haiti, on the devastation they saw, and the feeling that even though they did everything they could to provide aid and comfort to the victims, they didn’t do enough.

“We went there on what we saw as a divine mission, for one purpose, but God used us, clearly, for another purpose,” the Rev. Darrell Armstrong, pastor of Shiloh Baptist Church in Trenton, said shortly after the group arrived back in New Jersey. “We will return there, our mission will continue.”

The group — about 14 congregants and staff members from The Presbyterian Church in Lawrenceville and six people from other Mercer County churches — had flown to Haiti on Tuesday morning and were only there a few hours when the earthquake struck. At the time, they were headed to Thoman, a small mountain town a few hours outside Port-au-Prince where there is no running water or electricity.

“On the way we saw some falling rocks, some gravel falling down and I jokingly said ‘maybe it’s an earthquake,’ then thought nothing of it as we traveled on” said Bruce McGraw, a co-leader of the trip.

After learning a quake had struck and running a medical clinic to help people where they were, the group headed toward Port-Au-Prince to see what they could do to help.

“We didn’t see much at first, then noticed some collapsed homes and buildings as we got closer,” McGraw said. “Then everything was damaged, piles of rubble were all over, and there were bodies, bodies, bodies, bodies.”

With their hotel destroyed, group members — who included three doctors, a registered nurse and other people trained in emergency services — went to the U.S. embassy and offered their help. They were soon put to work and continued nonstop from Wednesday morning through Thursday night, then ended up sleeping on the embassy lawn and sidewalks due to a lack of space.

Embassy officials then offered them the opportunity to fly out early Friday, an offer they accepted, in part, to help make room for new volunteers to continue relief and humanitarian efforts. They were flown by the Air Force from Port-au-Prince to San Juan, Puerto Rico and then to JFK Airport in New York.

The group arrived via bus at the Lawrenceville church around 3 p.m., and had a private meeting with family and friends. Then, some group members met with reporters to discuss their harrowing experiences.

“I’m relieved to finally be safe and see my family and my girlfriend, but I feel like there’s so much more that we could have done,” an emotional Todd Stone-Sapp said before pausing to regain his composure and receiving a hug from another group member. “I wished we could have helped more people who were hurt, helped more people find their loved ones.”

The 18-year-old Lawrence resident then urged everyone to “do anything you possible can to help these people. They need everything.”

The church group is the second from New Jersey to get out of Haiti safely.

A 15-member group from Trinity United Methodist Church in Hackettstown got home earlier Friday. Members of that group were playing ball with children at an orphanage when the quake hit.

Meanwhile, at least one New Jersey resident was still missing Friday night.

Hopewell native Christine Gianacaci, a 22-year-old student at Lynn University in Florida, was on a relief mission with 11 other students and two faculty members. Eight students in that group, including one from New Jersey, were located and have returned to Florida. Gianacaci, three other students and two faculty members are still missing.

University spokesman Jason Hughes said school officials believe the missing were in their hotel rooms when the earthquake struck. He said the school had hired a second private search crew, in addition to one provided by their insurance company, to try to locate the missing.

Gianacaci’s friend Andie Becker said the woman’s family and friends were hopeful on Friday, a crucial day — it’s not likely that people trapped would survive much longer.

The woman talked to her parents minutes before the quake hit, Becker said. They believe she was in her room at the Montanta Hotel, which collapsed.

Gianacaci, a junior at Lynn, was on the trip because it was a course requirement but also wanted to do good, Becker said.

“Her Facebook status is ‘Saving the world in Haiti,’” Becker said.

“She’s just the sweetest little thing,” she said. “I can’t believe this is happening.”

On Thursday, an aid worker from New Jersey was freed by French firefighters from the rubble of the collapsed Montana Hotel in Port-au-Prince.

Sarla Chand, 65, of Teaneck, is vice president of international programs at the New Windsor, Md.-based medical relief group IMA World Health.

Associated Press writers Geoff Mulvihill in Haddonfield and Samantha Henry in Newark contributed to this article.

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