Just before 7 a.m. on Feb. 3, Capt. Steve Koch, First Officer Jeff Yannucciello and I soared silently into a thick mass of clouds in an Embraer 110 Bandit on a mission from Venice, Fla., to Haiti for Agape Flights.
Then, as we broke free from the dark fog, bright rays of sunshine beamed through the windows. I breathed an audible sigh of relief into my headset and shifted in the upright jump seat located directly behind the two pilots. “You OK back there?” asked Koch (pronounced Cook). “Oh yes,” I said, smiling out the window as we continued our assent.
Our mission: To drop supplies to a small number of the 300 missionaries who work for Agape Flights first in the Bahamas; then to Haiti, where we’ll make stops in Cap Haitian, Les Cayes and end in Port-au-Prince until the next morning, when we’ll head to the Dominican Republic, stop in the Bahamas and land back in Venice – in about 35 hours.
A whirlwind trip, yes, but one “you’ll remember for the rest of your life,” said Koch, who is responsible for giving me the opportunity in the first place. The Louisville native owns and operates Classic Biplane Tours, a company that gives tours of the River City from an open cockpit biplane. In late December, he sent a simple e-mail asking if I wanted to tagalong on one of the missions he’s been flying weekly to Haiti for the Florida-based organization Agape Flights since mere days after a 7.0 earthquake rocked the Caribbean country, nearly destroying the capital of Port-au-Prince and several other cities and killing an estimated 316,000 men, women and children and injuring thousands of others. The fact that Haiti has historically been ravaged by poverty and political violence has only confounded the devastation.
“It’s hard to prepare yourself for what you’re gong to see,” said Koch, who speaks with a calm, measured cadence. After flying the initial route right after the disaster and delivering much-needed supplies, the pilot felt compelled to continue volunteering with Agape because of his desire to serve God and His people, regardless of what corner of the earth they reside. “I figured I needed to keep doing this or I’d forget,” he said, quietly. “It really has been life-changing for me.”
After stopping in the Bahamas and heading closer to Haiti, Yannucciello, a Florida resident and director of operations for Agape Flights, explains the airplane was originally designed to carry 15 to 19 passengers but was reconfigured into a cargo plane with two seats for the pilots and two “jump seats.” It’s not pressurized, so once we reach 17,000 to 18,000 feet, we all put on oxygen masks or canulas, plastic tubing that sticks into each nostril.
We started out carrying about 3,000 pounds of cargo, including our persons. “We carry whatever the missionaries need for their own personal use or their subsequent missions,” Yannucciello said. The men and women who have dedicated their lives to Agape Flights provide clean water, community health, education, medical services, micro enterprises, orphan care, vocational training and evangelism.
Right after the earthquake, the basic necessities were most needed. Since then, “I’ve carried dogs, cats, car parts, mail,” Koch chuckles.
I sit back and watch out the window, mesmerized by the beauty of the sky and the ocean below. Though I anticipated feeling fearful, I have yet to experience anything but slightly tense, none of which has anything to do with the aircraft. I am a bit anxious because the Haitian government had previously delayed releasing the names of the two individuals who will be on the ballot for the country’s March 20 presidential elections. If the people are displeased with the results, there is much concern that there will be mass riots similar to what the country experienced in late 2010.
“Truthfully, I just want to make sure we’re in the right place and in the midst of the action if it happens so I can get the best photos,” I crack, though I’m only partially joking.
As we get closer to the country, the mountainous region is visible below. So is the obvious poverty. At our first stop in Cap Haitian, nearly 20 youngsters dressed in school uniforms come running out of what appears to be nowhere to hang on the fences. “Hey you! Hey you!” they shout, the only English words most of them know. Capt. Koch and I walk over to the fence and begin handing out packages of cookies and bottles of water. We communicate with hand gestures and facial expressions, a few Spanish words and plenty of smiles and laughter. I wag my finger and feign upset at one child who pretends he hasn’t received a cookie. He erupts into giggles. For a moment, these are school kids in any city in America and not children whose parents are more than likely in a daily struggle to keep them fed, clothed, housed and safe.
After a stop in Les Cayes, we head to our final destination for the day, the Toussaint Louverture International Airport in Port-au-Prince. When we land, I’m struck by the smell. Instead of decay and death, it’s the familiar scent of a campfire or barbecue. I’ll later learn that’s because so many of the city’s people live, and therefore cook, outdoors.
Agape Flights missionary Lamartine Liberus, a native Haitian, meets us and immediately we begin our tour of the city, a noisy, dusty, dirty place lined with men, women and children and the colorful wares and goods so many of them are attempting to sell to someone, anyone. “We are lucky,” Liberus tells us, his near-perfect English spoken with the beautiful accent of his city, “the people are happy with the (upcoming presidential election) ballot results.” Armed guards with the United Nations seem to be on every corner, but we do not witness violence firsthand at all during our trip.
What we see instead is incredible poverty and the infamous “tent cities,” places where hundreds of people have fashioned makeshift homes out of tarps and tents on any open areas, including across the street near the toppled presidential palace.
Jean-Pierre Lorette lives there and she is eager to tell her story. “We’re still living in hell,” she says in Creole. “We have gotten some stuff but our population is under stress. We don’t have a president. Our country is pretty much upside down.” The woman talks passionately when she recounts the violence that occurs in the cities and among the people. “It’s a constant dying, it’s a constant death. We’re in despair. “¦ Please tell your people don’t forget us.”
Lorette’s neighbor, Brevilis Carol, speaks up. “Pa gin lavi.” There is no life, she says, as she points out the bucket she and her four children use as a sink, the hard, dirt floor they sleep on at night. “(There is) no help,” she says, her eyes unsmiling. But then she continues, as Lorette nods her head in agreement “God is able. With men, it is impossible. But with God, it is possible.”
Liberus drives us through the rough streets that remind of when friends and I would take a 4-wheel drive vehicle into the deep woods of Upper Michigan and laugh as we bumped along on two-tracks once built for logging trucks, except in Haiti, the rough ride is exacerbated by a lack of stop lights, lines on the roads and general driving guidelines.
As we drive past people washing laundry in buckets, babies playing in the dirt and dogs roaming the roads looking for food, Liberus confirms the newly emerging reports of the serious issue of sexual assaults that are occurring at increasingly frightening numbers. The country has failed to remove the majority of the rubble from the earthquake or address its serious issue of homelessness and unemployment. People drink rainwater, when it comes, or rely on clean water from international aid organizations. Food is scarce, but not because it hasn’t been sent, Liberus says. It simply hasn’t always been delivered to where it needs to go because the government isn’t helping its people. “But God will provide. We have faith,” he assures.
We stop at a mission operated by American Tom Brumbley and his wife, Beverly. Part of it was destroyed in the earthquake. Tarps from America cover outdoor schoolrooms where walls should be. In one, a group of women congregate and sing a tune usually sung at funerals: “No more crying, no more hurting. Once the journey is over, there will be no more. When the journey of life is over with, I will be in heaven forever and God’s presence will be waiting for me once this journey is over with.”
We climb to the top of the mission and look out over what appears to be miles and miles of toppled buildings, people sitting, standing, congregating on the streets because they have nowhere to go. Despite the devastation, I am struck at the beauty as the sun begins to sink into the mountains. There is more singing inside. “God’s power will save us,” they sing, the acoustics emanating through the facility. I am unable to stop the tears from pouring down my cheeks.
As we drive along the streets, I suddenly plead with Liberus to pull over in the middle of the road. “Please, Lamartine!” Yannucciello and I both jump out with our cameras at the sight. A starburst of light is beaming through the only remnants of what once used to be a library, a poetic, poignant moment we both want to capture on film
Before we get back into Liberus’ truck, a woman whose arm has obviously been badly injured walks toward us looking deep into my eyes. She points to a toppled cathedral behind her. This is where she was standing when the earthquake hit. That is where she was dug out from beneath the rubble, fingers missing from her mangled limb. This is where she was rescued. This – Haiti – still needs rescuing. “Take my picture. Tell my story,” she says. I do.
In The News
- “¢ Earlier this week, former President Bill Clinton met with singer Michel “Sweet Micky” Martelly and former Haitian first lady Mirlande Manigat, who will run against one another in Haiti’s March 20 presidential elections, in separate closed-door meetings in Port-au-Prince. Clinton co-chairs the Interim Haiti Reconstruction Commission with Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive.
- Hollywood actor Sean Penn spoke to the press earlier this week and said efforts to rebuild Haiti are being hindered by a lack of communication and cooperation between international aid groups. Penn, who has committed much time and resources to the devastated country, told The Associated Press there is “far too much duplication, far too little communication” among the organizations. “These have to work with each other against the problem of poverty and not against each other in competition for donors,” he said. “It’s one of the basic embarrassments and failures in the aid community.” The actor also urged the media to keep a spotlight on the country. “I think we have an opportunity to keep Haiti from being the old kind of headline and give the opportunity to be the new kind,” he said.
About Agape Flights
- Agape Flights transports critical supplies to more than 300 missionaries and their families throughout Haiti, the Dominican Republic and the Bahamas. The missionaries care for more than 1 million people each year.
- In the first 30 days after the earthquake hit Haiti on Jan. 12, 2010, Agape Flights made 100 flights to the devastated country, delivered more than 275,000 pounds of donated emergency supplies, transported numerous medical teams to Haiti and evacuated orphans.
- In the first 90 days after the earthquake hit Haiti, Agape Flights made 160 mission relief flights, delivered more than 550,000 pounds of donated supplies, transported medical teams to Haiti, evacuated orphans to their adoptive parents waiting in the United States and flew missionary families to safety.
- Agape Flights is a nonprofit organization that was founded in Florida in 1980 by Keith and Clara Starkey.
- Agape Flights literally means “God’s Love Flights.”
- Contact: (941) 488-0990, firstname.lastname@example.org or www.agapeflights.com.
“¢ WHAS11 will air footage of The Voice-Tribune’s recent trip to Haiti at 5 p.m. on Friday, Feb. 18.
photos by ANGIE FENTON | contributing photographer
Category: Cover Stories
About the Author (Author Profile)
Angie Fenton is Managing Editor of The Voice-Tribune, a Blue Equity company. She is also an entertainment correspondent for WHAS11′s new morning show, “Great Day Live!”, which debuted August 22 on Louisville’s ABC affiliate. Additionally, Angie is an entertainment correspondent for the Saturday Morning Show with Ron ‘n’ Mel Fisher on 84WHAS (840 AM) and has served in the same capacity for Churchill Downs, the Kentucky Derby and Kentucky Oaks; Breeders’ Cup; and Circuit of the Americas during the Formula 1 U.S. Grand Prix in November 2012. Angie also serves as an emcee, host, voiceover professional and on-camera commercial talent.
Angie has a bachelor’s and master’s in English from Central Michigan University and began her career as an adjunct professor at her alma mater. She is the youngest of five — four of whom were adopted, including Angie, and none of whom are biologically related. She is also a Michigan native who moved to Kentucky in June 2002. Angie is owned by two dogs — Herbie and Yoda — and feels lucky to have loved and been loved by many more, including Pooch, Jessie, Onyx, Jack and Big Bud, who took his last breath on Christmas Day 2012.