With her iPhone clamped to one ear, Magalie Rigaud clicked down the aisle of Caribbean Market in her silver heels, trying to find a bag of Alley Cat, the only brand her cat would eat.
"There's no Alley Cat," she told Naïka, her teenage daughter, who was on the other end of the phone. "I don't care whether she eats it or not. I'm just going to take one of the brands on the shelves."
Her twin 12-year-old boys, Marc-Edwin and Carl-Edwin, were right next to her, looking at the wall of cat food. The Caribbean Market was the biggest and best, where you could buy everything from bunk beds to Hershey's chocolate syrup. Haitians and expatriates in Port-au-Prince shopped there because they liked the selection and the American brands.
"If she doesn't eat it," Naïka told Magalie, "then she'll just have to starve."
Magalie was scanning the brands. Then she felt a jolt.
"Mommy, what's that?" Marc-Edwin asked her.
"That," Magalie said, "is an earthquake."
The floor started to buck and jump. She took her sons' hands and tried to head for the door, but it was like running on a trampoline. She could see the walls collapsing like dominoes, coming right at her.
That's when her maternal instincts kicked in: She grabbed the boys and pulled them into her.
"I knew that I was stronger and could take the hit better than them," she says.
They got as far as the dog food, when they all went down together. A stack of dog food bags stopped the ceiling and walls from crushing them. Once the shaking had stopped, Magalie and the boys found themselves in a dark cave, lying on their sides. Everything was quiet.
"Mommy, what happened?" Marc-Edwin asked her. "Are we going to die?"
"No," she told him, as the heat started to rise and the dust started to settle. "If we were going to die, we would have already been dead. If God made this cave for us, it's because he knows that someone is going to pick us up."
As they settled in, Magalie fanned the boys, and wondered how long they would be there.
Somewhere in the rubble, Magalie heard voices: A woman screaming for help, two men talking.
"Fabrice, man, this is it, we're dead," said a man named Sonjé. "This is where we're going to die; there's no way out."
"Stop!" Magalie yelled into the dark. "If you were to die, you would have already been dead. I'm not going to die here because I have to get out. I have a daughter waiting for me at home and I need to know how she is doing."
"Madame, you don't know what you are talking about," Sonjé shot back. "There is no way out of here."
"There's a way out," she said. "I'm going to wait till God shows me the way out."
Magalie tried to call Naïka at home, to tell her she was buried alive at the market, to send for help. But she couldn't get through; she figured they were too deep in the rubble. Was Naïka safe? Had her house collapsed?
Stay calm, Magalie thought. Stay strong. She used the flashlight on Marc-Edwin's cell phone to illuminate the cave. It was the size of a doghouse. On the floor, dog food was mixed with liquid soap and sponges and broken glass. Magalie could feel some broken shelves against her back. To her side were Sonjé's feet. Marc-Edwin was sandwiched between Carl-Edwin and her. Fabrice was lying at their feet.
* * *
It didn't take long before the twins started crying.
"Keep calm," she told them. "Hold your breath. We need to save our oxygen. Don't talk. Let me do the talking."
"What we are going to do?" she asked. "We are going to pray."
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul.
He leads me in paths of righteousness
for his name's sake.
God, she thought, is going to get us out of this. He won't abandon us. She and the boys pressed on with the prayer, the second verse eerily appropriate.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
they comfort me.
About this time, Sonjé started up again with his talk of death.
"Can you shut up?" Magalie asked him. "Your negative vibe, keep it for yourself. Anytime you want to talk like this, tell it to yourself, because you're going to die by yourself. I'm not staying here with you. I'm going out. And I'm going out with my sons."
Sonjé shut up.
* * *
"We're in luck," Sonjé burst out suddenly. "I just found some flashlights."
"See this is it, it's a sign from God," said Magalie. "God's giving us time to wait; we are no longer in the dark."
Sonjé turned over the flashlights to Magalie. She turned one on and stuck it between the dog food bags, lighting up the cave. The rest, she would save for later.
"Mommy you're bleeding," said Carl-Edwin, noticing the nasty gash on Magalie's scalp.
"Don't worry about that," she said. "I'll worry about that when we get out. Now we have to conserve our oxygen until people come to rescue us."
* * *
When Sonjé spoke again, he had good news. He had unearthed a cache of Mott's apple juice. And a few cans of carrot, banana and grape juice.
"What did I tell you?" Magalie said.
"I'm starting to believe you," said Sonjé. "I think we are going to get out."
"Don't think that we are going out," Magalie said. "We are going out."
Magalie watched the hours slip by on her cell phone. Marc-Edwin broke the silence.
"Mommy, before I die I want to tell you that I love you."
"We're not going to die!" she said. "Have I ever lied to you?"
"If we get out…" Marc-Edwin said.
Magalie cut him off. "What?"
"When we get out," he said, "I have to go to school because tomorrow I have a math test."
"Mommy, now I understand what that mothering instinct is," said Carl-Edwin. "I will never forget what you did for us today. You just covered us with yourself. I hope that my wife will be like you."
* * *
The hours dragged by. Over the city of Port-au-Prince hung a cloud of concrete dust. As night started to fall, people wailed and chanted, prayers mixed with fears. Haitians worked through the night pulling friends and family—some alive, some dead—from the rubble. Magalie, insulated in the cave, had no idea if anyone was looking for them.
Sometime after 10 p.m., Magalie heard a noise from the woman trapped above her.
"Ask the lady above what's happening," she instructed Sonjé.
"She says they are working out there," he said. "She can hear people talking."
"Tell her to tell them that once they reach her, that there are five people under her."
Sonjé passed on the message.
A few minutes later, Magalie was getting antsy.
"Sonjé! Tell her again."
"I already did."
"You need to repeat it again so she doesn't forget."
Sonjé did as he was told.
At some point, Magalie couldn't hear the woman above her. She knew she had been rescued, but wasn't sure that the woman had given the rescuers the message. So she started screaming.
Sonjé started to scream. And somebody answered him.
"Tell them that we are here!" said Magalie.
"I am here!" Sonjé yelled.
"No. Not you. Us!" Magalie said.
For the next hour and a half, they heard the scratching. They knew the rescuers were digging and pounding with a small sledgehammer. They were putting the gravel in a red thermos, hauling it up and throwing it away.
An hour and a half after the woman had gotten out, a hand shot through the wall.
"Do you see my hand?" said a voice.
"Yes," Sonjé said. "I see your hand."
"Okay, wait there," said the voice. "We are working for you."
Sonjé and Fabrice were the first out. Then Magalie decided Carl-Edwin should go.
Then Marc-Edwin went.
Magalie was next. She felt around and managed to locate her red-rimmed Coco Chanel glasses. They were only slightly scratched. She tossed off her silver shoe (the other was knocked off in the chaos), and climbed out barefoot.
She emerged to find two Haitians digging rubble with their hands, not the rescue team she'd expected.
"Lady, I'm not the one taking you out," one of the young men told Magalie. "Jesus is the one taking you out."
"I know," Magalie told him. "But he's doing it through you. And I need to thank you."
* * *
The day following the quake, with her daughter Naïka safe and her house still standing, Magalie returned to work at Catholic Relief Services. She scoured the city for food for CRS' staff; she bought cell phones for them from a collapsed shop, the owner eager to sell them before they were looted.
As the days slid into weeks, Magalie, with a bandage on her head, helped manage CRS' warehouses as they welcomed food and supplies flooding into CRS from across the world.
She did anything, in fact, to occupy her mind so she wouldn't have to think about her time in the rubble.
"I don't want this to be the focal point of my life," she says.
But even now, she still thinks of the number of Haitians who didn't make it out of the Caribbean Market, the number of Haitians who were trapped for days and weeks in rubble, many of them never rescued.
Work at CRS, in some ways, has helped her cope. It occupies her mind, and crowds out the thoughts—the walls in the market coming at her, the brush with death—that used to haunt her. Thankfully, the thoughts are much less frequent now.
Today, she's in the CRS office, wearing the glasses she wore on the day of the quake, checking her iPhone and focusing on the mission at hand: helping Haiti's survivors.
Learn more about CRS' response to the earthquake in Haiti.
Lane Hartill is the western and central Africa regional information officer for Catholic Relief Services. He is based in Dakar, Senegal. Lane traveled to Haiti for CRS following the earthquake.