Heartbreak & Courage

updated 02/01/2010 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/01/2010 AT 01:00 AM EST

THE CATASTROPHE STRUCK WITHOUT WARNING. There was no ominous thundercloud, no wailing siren. One minute the ground was still. The next, at 4:53 p.m. on Jan. 12, something terrible had begun. A 7.0 earthquake shook the Haitian capital, Port-au-Prince, and the surrounding area. By the time the rumbling ended, at least 50,000 people were dead, 250,000 were injured, and countless others had lost their homes. Here survivors share their stories of bravery and compassion.

The day began like any other. For bank loan officer FABIENNE LEGER, 28, that meant writing a report she was to give the next day. The floor underneath my desk was opening, like it was trying to suck me down. I started to run, but I couldn't because the ground was shaking. After it stopped, people started running down the stairs to get out. People were falling in the stairs; people were panicking. People were pushing; they didn't know what was going on. Everybody was running for their lives.

School had just let out, and DANIELA REMA PICKETT, 16, was riding back to her orphanage on the school bus, which she calls a 'tap-tap.' I was sitting in front, inside the tap-tap behind the driver when the earthquake happened. It was shaking me all over. The driver yelled, "Everybody jump off and save yourselves." I see everybody jumping out, and I stay on the tap-tap. When the shaking stop, I got off the tap-tap. Everybody running and saying "Jesus." I walk to [the orphanage]. There was no car on the streets. The street only have people. I ask people what happened, and they said nothing to me. When they said nothing to me, I was afraid.

From the backyard of her family's home, ROSE FRANCK, 20, a college student, was enjoying an afternoon with friends. My mother was the only one in the house. She was screaming. She didn't know what was happening. She thought it was demons, some mystic spirits doing something bad, because the walls were coming together and going backwards, in and out, and the furniture was moving. We were trying to get her out of the bed, and she just froze. We had to pull her out of the house.

The scene on the streets was apocalyptic. JOSE CASTILLO, communications director for the Northwest Haiti Christian Mission, was on business in Port-au-Prince and found himself wandering the streets with thousands of others after chaos struck. Screams were coming from homes: people begging to be saved. Some people were crying out to God. Women were looking for their children. There were bodies everywhere. A guy was hollering in pain; he had lost his leg. I saw the backs of children's skulls crushed, limbs on the street, people covered in blood, people missing their heads—and it was everywhere. In between the bodies were children crying. The smell had set in, and tears streamed down my cheeks. These poor people—how will Haiti survive this?

The first night—and every night since—even people whose homes remained standing slept outside, fearful of an aftershock. FRANCIE BERNAVIL, 53, a retired hotel supervisor. Everybody was staying on the ground. Even if your house was not breaking down, you never know when it is going to come down. I have a few things in the house, so I just go and get something to drink or something and then get out.

The injured flooded local hospitals. ASHLEY AAKESSON, 39, executive director of the Children's Nutrition Program of Haiti in Leogane, helped out at one. Doctors were focusing on the very worst. For any fractures where the skin wasn't broken, they told us, "You're going to have to set them. Pull it out straight and splint it." So my three colleagues and I were using cardboard and bandages to splint the kids.

Amid the chaos, people did what they could for neighbors, even as they struggled themselves. FABIENNE LEGER: I have Internet, so I go onto Facebook and try to help people reach their loved ones. My friend's husband owns a company that makes ice and water. Every day we go and get all the ice and water we can and take it to the people. They don't have anything. But they are trying to survive. We're just trying to do what we can for them.

By the second night after the quake, gangs and looters roamed the streets, and a new threat loomed. ROSE FRANCK: We found out from some people walking around that the prison collapsed and that everybody was out. That's when we got scared again. The second night and the third night we didn't sleep because we were scared that people could come and do something bad. It's very bad that not only you have to worry about all that's happened, but now you also have to worry about people doing violence.

Thousands of splintered families continue a desperate search for loved ones and survive any way they can. One case: MARCUS FRANCOIS, 19, living in a tent city with his sister Kawalie, 13, hasn't heard from his parents. We don't have anything, just some spaghetti and the clothes on our back. I don't know what our future will be. Right now my dream is to have a place to live for my sister and me. I am thinking that my sister and I will go find my parents. It may take more than a day, but I will find them. Life is hard, very hard, but we are strong.

Through grief and mourning, the Haitian spirit remains unbowed. The Hands and Feet Project orphanage near Port-au-Prince held a special church service Jan. 17. Cofounder MARK STUART: The orphans were singing songs and praying for the people around them. To stop and pray and think about people who are less fortunate—it was just a moment of hope.

After finding her mother dead, YOLETTE ETIENNE, 50, the director for Oxfam in Haiti, buried her the next day and then went back to work. She was in the garden; the wall of my neighbor hit her, and she's dead. But all of us are affected. There are so many needs in the street, and we can help; we can help to alleviate the suffering. We cannot fail. We need to do the best we can.

AN ORPHAN'S NEW FAMILY

Elie Michel, 12, was in his two-story block home in Port-au-Prince when the quake struck. He survived, but his mother and father died instantly. "I was all alone and didn't know what to do," says Elie, who that night curled up on the dirt outside the rubble. "I didn't sleep much; I was crying," he says. "Just crying, crying, crying."

The next morning he roamed the streets, looking for something, someone. He found Silvia Lorial, 66, a widow left homeless by the quake. She was weak but seemed calm; he was healthy but scared. Without discussing it, they became a team. "He can help me because he is young," says Lorial. "I was so happy to find her," says Elie. They trudged to a nearby tent city and made shelter out of a broomstick, branches and a blanket.

There, something amazing happened: This makeshift town of strangers adopted them as their own. Tono Pierre, 26, brought them a small bag of rice, half the supply he got from a missionary. "I don't need it all," he says. Another man gave them half his bar of soap; others came by to ask what they needed. The old woman and the orphan found, in each other and in these strangers, a new family. "Elie and I will stay together, and God will provide for us," says Lorial. "He is already providing."

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