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Inside story: Finding lost loved ones in Haiti

This week, Washington Post reporters Theola Labbé-DeBose and Wil Haygood wrote about William Saint-Hillaire's agonizing wait to hear whether his wife, Lissa, and their six children in Haiti had survived last week's earthquake. With poor communications and difficult travel, not to mention shortages of food, water and shelter, making life fragile and reporting problematic, I wanted to know first how they found the story, and then how they, against seemingly insurmountable odds, found Lissa.

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This is what Theola had to say:

"Hi Brigid, I can only get online an hour or so a day. Hope this helps. When i arrived in Port-au-Prince, I got word through my colleagues that i needed to track down a missing family. i wanted to talk to Wil directly for more info. That was difficult because phone communications are spotty and I had no internet. I managed to borrow a colleague's Haitian cell phone, called the main newsroom at night and asked them to transfer me to Wil's home. He picked up and I said "Talk quickly" since i didn't know how many minutes we had. With both my parents being Haitian, and having spent time in Haiti, I knew how close-knit families and neighborhoods are.

"I had the family name but I needed to know where they lived. Did they go to church? Any other details that might help me as I went out and talked to people about them. Wil gave me those: their address, the name of the church that they attended, and I set out with my driver and translator the next day. There was a lot of damage in the Delmas neighborhood where they lived, so it wasn't easy to get there because so many side streets were blocked by debris. We kept asking for the church name but it didn't seem to ring a bell with folks. Finally, at one church, they pointed us up the road and then we saw a sign for the church.

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"We followed the signs and ended up at a building that was largely intact, but the school next door to it sustained major damage. There were people there who were taking a census of the families who were living in an encampment in the church schoolyard, and across the street in a private home. i asked if they knew of the Hilarie family and if they had seen them. Someone in the group said that they had, and then searched the crowd until they found her. She was living in the camp, under a tree, near a pile of garbage, with the children. She retold her story, and I asked her lots of specific details about where she was at the time of the quake, where the children were, what was she doing, saying, thinking, things like that.

"That wasn't easy because Haitian Creole is an emotional language that can be very imprecise. For example, I asked a woman here on a different story, when was the last time she ate, and she didn't say, "Last Tuesday before the earthquake." She literally replied, "I don't know food." That was her way of saying 'it has been such a long time since I have eaten.' So the reporting challenge was to slow down Lissa Hilaire and get her to go step by step by step about her journey. She was also very traumatized still by the events, very concerned about her children's safety. But she graciously gave me her time for two days, and also allowed us to take her photo."

I asked Wil how he found the father, William Saint-Hilaire, who lives in Silver Spring, in the first place.

Wil: "I was asking various churches and social service organizations for names of people who couldn't reach their loved ones in Haiti. I came across William St.-Hilaire and went out to meet him one evening. I imagined my story would be a profile of him and his anguish. But before I left. I said to myself, 'see if he has a recent pic of his family in Haiti.' and then I aimed to show it to the photo desk - I figured it would be a needle-in-haystack type request - for them to send it to Theola and [photographer] Nikki [Kahn] if they had time to go and look for them. I steeled myself for grim news of course, so was greatly surprised when Theola called me and said 'We found them and they'll all alive!'"

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So it was because of you and Theola, I asked Wil, that William, after fearing his family had died, discovered they were still alive?

Wil: "Yes it was; matter of fact, I told William St-Hilaire that they were alive after Theola told me. It gives me chills still."

By Brigid Schulte  | January 22, 2010; 10:03 AM ET
Categories:  How I got that story, Journalism  
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