“Tell me please, what day is it? Is it Wednesday?” whispered Franz Gilles, laying in his bed at the field hospital.
“No, it is Saturday,” the Israeli doctor standing next to him replied.
Gilles seemed baffled. He turned around and mumbled, “Saturday, oh my God.”
The 59-year-old administrative director of the Haitian tax authority spent the past four days buried under rubble, in what used to be his office, across the road from Port-au-Prince’s devastated presidential palace. “It was like in a box, then the night came,” he later said.
Local rescue workers tried to get Gilles out shortly after the massive, 7.0-magnitude earthquake hit the Haitian capital on January 13, but to no avail. They left their equipment on the ground and went on to rescue others. But three days later, an Israeli rescue mission — part of a 200-member Israeli rescue and relief mission that flew in to Haiti on January 14 — came back to the building, after receiving information that someone was still alive in the building.
“We started looking around, using dogs and listening devices and then we found him,” said Major Zohar Moshe, commander of the rescue force. Zohar’s team was one component of the rescue mission Israel dispatched to Haiti, a detachment from the Israel Defense Forces Home Front Command that includes engineering, medical, logistics and rescue experts.
This was their first chance to actually find someone they could help.
“I’m always optimistic. You have to be optimistic when you’re on a mission like this,” he said, as an Israeli military doctor climbed into the rubble to insert an intravenous liquid tube to Gilles arms.
The Israeli rescuers kept on working around the cavity in which Gilles was trapped, cutting through the debris that blocked the entrance. “We tried to talk with him, to keep him awake,” said Captain Nir Hazut. “I told him, ‘Do you know where we are from? We are from Israel.
Gilles, who all but lost hope to ever get out, replied: “I can’t believe it. You came all the way from Israel to save me?” Then he asked for a cell phone to call someone in Israel and say thank you, but rescuers told him that he’d have a chance to do so once he was out from under the debris and safe.
It took more than seven hours of careful digging, and maneuvering through the piles of brick, wood and office stationery, but by day’s end, Gilles was out. Bodies of his co-workers, who were not as lucky, were visible through the debris of what was once one of Haiti’s main government office buildings.
As Gilles was taken out on a stretcher to the ambulance, the crowd waiting outside the building for hours, broke out in cheers. “Bravo,” cried out one, and another led bystanders in cheers “We love Israel; we love Israel.”
“It is not about that, it is about saving lives,” said Major Zohar Moshe, covered in dirt and sweat after the rescue mission was over, “but it does make us very proud.”
A few hours later, in the field hospital set up by the Israeli military, Gilles seemed exhausted, but the doctors said he that in a few days he would be just fine.
Watch English-subtitled footage from the IDF field hospital in Haiti:
Nathan Guttman, staff writer, is the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.