A Close Up View of Haiti

St. John resident Bill Stelzer captures images of disaster and hope

While most citizens across the globe were glued to their televisions watching scenes of the aftermath of the devastating earthquake that hit Haiti on January 12, William Stelzer had a much different view.

Stelzer, a local videographer who previously spent time in Haiti teaching computer skills to children, traveled to the ravaged island country just days after a 7.0 earthquake left the city of Port-au-Prince in rubble.

Before the earthquake hit, Stelzer was scheduled to return for his sixth trip to Haiti in collaboration with the Mercy and Sharing Foundation, which has operated orphanages and schools in the country for more than 15 years under the direction of Susie Krabacher


Stelzer first met Krabacher through the Waveplace Foundation’s One Laptop Per Child program for which he taught a pilot program at Mercy and Sharing’s orphanage in Port au Prince. He has since photographed and filmed additional trips to the island and on the most recent trip had planned to cover the opening of Mercy and Sharing’s new orphanage in Williamson, about an hour’s drive north of the capital.


Instead, what Stelzer captured with his camera are scenes of pain, destruction and suffering, but also human connection, trust and hope. What he lived through during the week he spent in Haiti with Mercy and Sharing volulnteers led by Krabacher, has left an indelible mark on the long-time St. John resident.

“We were supposed to leave on the Sunday after the earthquake hit,” said Stelzer. “Then the earthquake happened on Tuesday night and on Wednesday morning I found on a rescue mission. I was on a plane to Miami on Thursday and met up with other Mercy and Sharing people there.”

When a Friday morning flight to an airport north of Port-au-Prince was canceled, the group flew out later that day.

“We ended up getting on a flight into Santo Domingo later that day,” said Stelzer. “A few hours after we heard, we were looking for supplies and off to the airport. We were on the plane with all of these aid workers and rescue teams from all over the world — that was the only way in at that point.”

“When this plane load of rescue workers and reporters landed in Santo Domingo, the captain thanked us over the loud speaker from the cockpit,” Stelzer said. “It was cool hearing the applause from the cockpit, when it’s usually the other way around.”

Even retelling the story back on St. John, Stelzer was caught up in the emotion of what he experienced.

“It’s a lot different telling this story and being in that plane, seeing news footage and thinking I might not be coming back or coming back with all of my pieces,” he said.

After connecting with the rest of the Mercy and Sharing team, the group secured a vehicle and drove across the border and through Haiti, keeping north of Port-au-Prince.

“It took between seven and 10 hours all together,” said Stelzer. “We were bypassing Port-au-Prince because we wanted to get to Williamson to see if the kids there were safe. When we got there they were basically alone, except for a janitor and a security guard.”

“They hadn’t had food or water for several days when we got there,” Stelzer said. “There was some evidence of the earthquake in Williamson, but the orphanage was totally fine. We brought food and diesel for the generator to run the water pump.”

While most the children at Mercy and Sharing’s Port-au-Prince orphanage had been moved to Williamson, there were still some children, staff and supplies back in the original Port-au-Prince orphanage, explained Stelzer.

“The kids were really excited to see us but were worried about the kids in the other orphanage that hadn’t been transferred yet,” he said.

The group set up headquarters in a hotel near the Williamson orphanage and set about trying to obtain security for the trip to Port-au-Prince, which grew even more dangerous since the jail fell apart in the the earthquake, Stelzer explained.

“People were sort of numb and in shock after the earthquake during the first few days,” that is why is was getting more dangerous
“Susie wanted a military escort to the orphanage so that the children would be safe,” he said. “We first went to a U.S. Marine outpost, but they were just landing choppers and bringing in supplies and couldn’t help us. But you felt really good about being American sitting there and watching these guys in full fatigues.”

Despite not obtaining security, the group traveled to Port-au-Prince that day and on most days during their stay in Haiti. While Mercy and Sharing’s Port-au-Prince orphanage had sustained damage and was overtaken by squatters who emptied the food storage, no one was injured.

“We packed up all the kids and we got the house mothers who had been taking care of the kids and loaded them into trucks and drove them out to Williamson,” said Stelzer. “The house mothers were in the back of the truck singing Haitian gospel songs all the way back, sort of songs of deliverance. They were very grateful.”

During his time in Port-au-Prince, Stelzer was thankful for his bad allergies, which made it easier for him to breathe without smelling the air.

“I had a medical mask, but it was around my neck because I don’t really smell well anyway,” said Stelzer. “When we were driving the first day, we were going really slowly and I saw a Haitian guy who looked at me and pointed to my mask to put it on. There were decomposing bodies under the rubble and it permeated everything.”

“There were bodies on the streets,” he said. “Things were cleared up a bit when I got there a few days later, but you heard stories from Haitians abut body parts on the ground in the streets.”

The Mercy and Sharing group also tried to determine the whereabouts of abandoned children who had been in the general hospital when it crumbled, Stelzer added.

“Susie worked with the hospital where she had a wing where the children are taken care of called the Abandoned Baby Unit,” said Stelzer. “We went to try to find out what happened to these kids because the entire hospital was damaged. They set up a tent city area right outside of the hospital which was protected by U.S. Military.”

“They said the children were safe but wouldn’t tell us where they were,” he said.

While witness to some violence, Stelzer was more impressed with the calm of the city although danger was always present.

“There was not much looting that I saw,” he said. “I saw isolated incidents and some things that looked like the beginning of riots, but weren’t. People there are so used to hardship and were so weakened, they were calmer.”

“I lived on cliff bars that I had brought with me,” Stelzer said. “You couldn’t give away any food or water because you could start a riot. There was a very real danger and as a result you ate and drank enough so you didn’t have to eat in front of people and you also tended to avoid it all together.”

Despite the activity around him, the situation dictated that Stelzer stay focused on his responsibility and his surroundings.

“I was in charge of getting pictures and video and I had to do that,” said Stelzer. “You are hyper-aware of everything going on around you. You’re almost in combat mode going, ‘where is my exit, where is the vehicle, what do I do if anything happens, where is my shot.’”

“You can’t screw up and you can’t get yourself killed,” he said.

During the time in Haiti, Krabacher was interviewed several times by CNN and the group was able to secure their Williamson orphanage. Stelzer shot a few thousand stills and about 50 minutes of video, some of which might to be used in upcoming news specials.

The footage will be used by Mercy and Sharing to share their story.

Looking back, Stelzer knows he is a different person now.

“For me personally, I knew as I was flying in there that I was not going to come back the same person,” he said. “I came from that standpoint where you are in this mode that you have to make things happen and you have to make them happen quickly.”

Through it all, Stelzer felt blessed to be able to visit Haiti and do what he could to help.

“I felt very privileged to be there,” said Stelzer. “They had a need and I had a skill. We all felt very lucky to be able to go in there and help and do good.”

Mercy and Sharing is always in need of donations, and especially now since many other orphanages were damaged and there are simply more orphans. To donate to Mercy and Sharing check out the website www.haitichildren.com.