JUST AFTER 4:30 P.M. on Tuesday, January 12, three development workers in a dented Toyota van were speeding along a narrow hillside road that zigzagged up to the Hotel Montana, in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. The men, all Methodist ministers, rarely visited this upscale complex, a favorite spot for diplomats, NGO staff, and tourists to gather for a drink and a break from the city's bedlam. The $160 price of a room was more than an average Haitian might make in three months, so the pastors preferred to stay at a modest church guesthouse a couple of miles away. They were headed to the Montana for dinner that night, meeting associates from another aid agency who'd had an earlier engagement there.
After being dropped off at the airy entrance, the three climbed the few broad steps leading to the lobby. Minutes later, at 4:53, a 7.0-magnitude earthquake heaved Port-au-Prince and razed the Montana, instantly reducing the five-story hotel to a burial mound of pulverized concrete, glass, and rebar, killing at least 75 people. For some 250,000 to 300,000 others across the city, entombed by collapsing buildings, this was the end of the story. For these men, it was just the beginning.
I'M ASHAMED TO SAY IT, but when I first heard about the quake I barely took note, glancing at the Web headlines as I hurried out to my local climbing gym. Not until hours later did I come home and realize how connected I was to the disaster. My voice mail contained a slew of messages from my mother, Nancy. "Turn on the news, Aaron," she said. "Your dad was in Port-au-Prince."
It might seem oblivious of me that I didn't know that my father, James Gulley, was in Haiti, but he's not your typical nine-to-fiver. He's a third-generation Methodist minister, though not a pastor with a parish like his father and grandfather before him. He started out as a student preacher in rural Illinois, but since before I was born he's worked around the world as a missionary and agriculture specialist, most recently commuting once a month from his home in Frisco, Colorado, to United Methodist Church projects in Africa, Cambodia, and Haiti.
His frantic schedule inspired a family joke: "It's 10 P.M.—do you know where your father is?" In the hours and days after the quake, we had sketchier-than-usual details about his whereabouts. We knew that he'd traveled to Port-au-Prince from New York on the morning of January 11 and that he'd planned to be there through the week. He called my mom from JFK before his flight to Haiti, and that was the last time anyone in the family had heard from him.
For me, the first hours were the most excruciating. Unable to sleep, my wife, Jen Judge, and I sat up late into the night scanning the news, which was grim. The U.S. State Department warned of "serious loss of life." The UN headquarters and the National Palace had collapsed, and the Red Cross estimated that one in three Haitians were affected. Watching the images of mangled victims and blasted buildings, I couldn't help but think of my 64-year-old father, crushed and dying beneath twisted wreckage. I considered praying, but I don't believe in God. Eventually, I managed about an hour of sleep.
We woke to a phone message from the church headquarters in New York, saying that a volunteer in Haiti had texted that Dad was OK. For the first time in 12 hours, I felt like I could breathe. A few hours later, the phone rang again: Disregard the earlier message. Dad still hadn't been located. With phone lines in Haiti down and misinformation swirling, the next few days followed this exhausting pattern. One minute the news was good; the next, things looked hopeless. A month earlier, Dad had undergone heart surgery and emerged with a clean bill of health. I'd come away thinking I had a while to enjoy his company, but suddenly that episode seemed like a bad omen.
By the evening of day one, the latest word was that Dad and two colleagues, Sam Dixon and Clinton Rabb, had been dropped off at the Montana for dinner just before the quake. No one had heard from them since, and news reports showed that the hotel was in ruins. "I'm not believing anything until we talk to Dad," my older brother, Jeremy, told me over the phone, his voice cracking. "Or we get the body." Hearing that, I fought back a swell of tears.