Jan 29 2010
**Hope Through Healing Hands donated $5,000 to Big Kenny's Love Everybody, LLC to support the medical and trauma services he and his team provided in Haiti.
by Cindy Watts
Country singer "Big Kenny" Alphin was in the Charlotte, N.C., airport flying home to Nashville from a gig when he saw the news - a 7.0 magnitude earthquake had struck Haiti. Capital city Port au Prince was in shambles. More than 100,000 people were presumed dead.
Alphin immediately called Jeanne Ratterman. Her husband, Alphin's friend Walt Ratterman, had been in Port au Prince since Jan. 2.
The news - no news.
Ratterman is a Washington-based specialist in renewable energy who travels all over the world - including with Alphin to Sudan - promoting the technology to war-torn countries and impoverished nations. On the day of the earthquake, he was in a business meeting at Hotel Montana in Port au Prince. He had e-mailed Jeanne at 4:45 p.m. The earthquake hit about eight minutes later.
"I thought. ‘Of all the dudes I know that could take care of himself wherever, that dude could,' " Alphin said. "I just kept thinking he was going to show up out of the blue, and the only reason people hadn't heard from him was because he was pulling other people out."
But Alphin got home and still there was no word from his friend. So the singer (half of country duo Big & Rich) assembled a search-and-rescue team. They returned empty-handed.
"Monday the 11th, I (had gotten) an e-mail from him," Alphin said. "This was the day before the earthquake. The e-mail said, ‘Kenny, I've been thinking a lot about you lately. I'm looking forward to seeing you, and I've been thinking a lot about life. I've come to the conclusion that, other than family being the most important thing, I figure the most important things in life are helping other people and music, and I guess that's why the two of us met up.' "
So on January 20, eight days after the quake, Alphin went to Haiti to look for Ratterman himself. What he found there shook him to the core.
‘Gringos, you will be killed'
Alphin and a crew of five, including his brother, Christian, flew from Nashville to Miami and then to the Dominican Republic. They caught a ride with a bus full of doctors, driving all evening and into the night. They slept a few hours on the floor of a warehouse, and in the morning the bus took them to the Haitian border.
"We proceeded to try and flag down a pickup," Alphin said. "We found one and started throwing our stuff in the back. This other doctor, still in his surgeon greens, shows up in another pickup, and he's like, ‘You will not ride in a back of a pickup. Gringos, you will be killed.' I said, ‘I will not be killed. I'm going that way.'
"There were a lot of people at the border, pressing, trying to get into the Dominican Republic, trying to get to safety or water or food. (The doctor) said, ‘Wait a minute. Just sit there.' "
The doctor managed to find the group a ride in a pair of Dominican ambulances headed into Port au Prince to pick up the injured. They dropped Alphin and his crew at the entrance to the Chinese embassy. Eventually, a Haitian embassy driver and his sister agreed to transport Alphin and his team to the hotel.
"They piled all of our stuff in these cars and drove us through the city of collapse," Alphin said. "She slowed down in front of her church, which looked like it was half crumbled, so I could see to the back of it where there was a school that housed 2,000 kids. That was flattened. I've got nothing in my lifetime to compare what it looked like. Maybe Hiroshima. There was rubble everywhere."
‘When I'm looking for her son, this is what I see'
At the hotel, Alphin saw a man in a Fairfax County vest. A Virginia native, Alphin knew that meant Virginia Task Force 1, one of the premier search-and-recovery teams in the U.S.
"The fellow turns around, and I introduce myself," Alphin said. " ‘Hi, I'm Big Kenny, and I have a friend here.' ... They showed me all the tunneling they had done and directed me into the tunnels and told me to go as far as I wanted to go. He wanted me to see they were doing everything humanly possible to get people out of the building."
Alphin said the wreckage of the Montana was populated with international search teams, all looking for survivors from their own countries. But really, they were operating a morgue.
"As of the time I was down there, over 70,000 bodies were buried outside the city," he said. "I would not (hesitate) to say, just from driving though the city, that tens of thousands were burned in the street, because the stench is so bad. The morgues were full. The hospitals were full.
"There's probably a quarter of a million people dead there. There were 2,500 killed in the Twin Towers - (this is) a hundred times the catastrophe that we as a country experienced in the Twin Towers."
Alphin and his team slept that night on mats in what used to be the hotel parking lot. The next day, more people started showing up in search of loved ones. One man asked Alphin for tools so he could dig into the structure himself to find his family. And then, as the singer sat on his sleep mat, he was approached by a woman looking for power tools.
"She was a mother who had been in the hotel with her husband, 1-and-a-half-year-old daughter and her 4-year-old son," Alphin said. "She had her daughter, and saw walls crumble between her and husband and son. She and her daughter made it out.
"I sat with her for a while and got all the specifics I could about her family, so if we found them or anything came up related to them, I could tell her."
Then Alphin headed into the wreckage of the hotel. "I do everything I can do until it overcomes me, and I let it overcome me, and then I go back (into the rubble)," Alphin said, tears welling up again.
"If it was my child in there, I would stop everything and move heaven and earth, and I don't think anyone's child is any different," he said. "My boy is 4 years old and her boy is 4 years old. When I'm looking for her son, this is what I see." Crying in earnest now, Alphin pulled out his cell phone to display a picture of his own son. "I was going to make sure she got her boy back."
‘Let's go get it'
While Alphin was working at the Montana, word started circulating about a nursing home that served the poor that had collapsed. There were said to be 85 survivors, and they had been without food and water for more than a week.
When Alphin got there, a camp for displaced people had sprung up in front of the nursing home. Instead of 85 people, there were more than a thousand.
"People are scared to get out of their vehicles at this point," Alphin recalled. "Kids jump on your car and grab things, but they just want something to eat.
"I find the guy who says he is the head of this nursing home, and I'm speaking in broken French, but I have a translator. He says he has no food and no water. I said, ‘Let's go get it.' "
The nursing home operator told Alphin that it was Saturday night, so no food was available. He didn't buy it. The man tried to get Alphin to just give him money to buy food, but he didn't like that idea either.
"After this Caribbean negotiation that goes on for an hour, we take off and head down into the slums, and I see bags of fruit sitting on the sides of the road," Alphin said. "You get down into the slums and it's just a like a farmers' market in a pigsty - and I raised pigs growing up, so I know what pigsties look like and smell like, and this is a farmers' market in a pig sty. People are just doing their all, just fighting to sell what they can sell."
Alphin and his team bought 10 burlap sacks of cooking coal, baskets of fruit, 350 pounds of rice, 250 pounds of beans and cooking oil, all from different vendors, and took it all back to the nursing home.
"I don't know anybody who would walk with me in there right now, and that's what this place needs - someone to walk amongst the people and help them out," Alphin said. "I got down on my knee and sang ‘Amazing Grace' to them and left and went back to the Hotel Montana. That needs to be done about 10,000 more times."
‘I still maintain hope'
Toward the end of Alphin's stay in Haiti, earth-moving equipment arrived at the hotel, and workers had begun opening up portions of the wreckage that seemed likely to have pockets where people might have survived.
"The last couple of voids that we broke into, from 200 yards away you could just smell (human decay)," Alphin said. "That's a crazy thing."
By the time Alphin left Haiti, the hotel site was no longer considered a search-and-rescue mission. It had been turned over to the Army Corps of Engineers as a recovery effort.
Alphin recognizes that two weeks is about the extent of how long a person can survive without food and water, but still he expects Ratterman to come strolling over and say, "Man, you look like you could use some help."
"I still maintain hope Walt is sitting in some cavity with food stores all around him, or he had enough granola bars stuffed in his pockets and he's just sitting there meditating," Alphin said. "If there was a guy that could survive, it's him."
At press time, Ratterman still had not been found. Alphin plans to return to Haiti the first chance he gets. He wants to build a school in his friend's honor.
The mother's 4-year-old son and her husband were recovered Tuesday. Recovered, Alphin pointed out - not rescued.