Earthquake victim helps Haitian recovery effort

Posted: Monday, July 12, 2010

ANCHORAGE - Twenty-five-year-old Christa Brelsford, who grew up in Anchorage, was in Haiti on a two-week volunteer trip when the earthquake that injured and killed hundreds of thousands of people struck on Jan. 12.

Bill Roth /  The Anchorage Daily News
Bill Roth / The Anchorage Daily News

Concrete slabs crushed her right leg. Her rescue is a story of compassionate acts by one person after another.

Now that she is walking, ice climbing and generally adapting well to a prosthetic leg, Christa and her family are determined to help the villages and people who came through for her, in what dad, Taylor Brelsford, describes as "the darkest moments a parent can imagine."

Christa, slender and athletic with blond hair, is a graduate student in sustainability studies at Arizona State University. She already has a civil engineering degree and another undergraduate degree. She was in Anchorage over the weekend for a friend's wedding, and she spoke of her experiences at St. Mary's Episcopal Church.

She is leading a foundation to raise money for education in the villages where she volunteered. Find it at Christasangels.org. The group works through trusted Haiti-based partners. The foundation has raised $140,000 so far - enough to build and operate a school in Cabois, one of the villages, and feed the children lunch every day. Construction on the Cabois school was finished last week.

Her parents, Taylor and Terry, have collected enough money from among their relatives to allow the families of two Haitians who were key to saving her - Gerald Lumarque and Wenson Georges - to rebuild homes in Haiti. The Brelsford clan contributed half the cost of one house, and more than half of the other.

They are working to get Georges, who is 18, a passport and visa and would like to host him so he can finish high school in Anchorage.

Christa's brother Julian, 27, who had been lending his computer expertise to an adult literacy program in Haiti, got her to come to the West Indies country. He thought she could do a feasibility study for a retaining wall to keep the erosion of a river bank from eating away at homes and other buildings.

Almost at the end of her trip, Christa and Julian were at a friend's home in Darbonne, which is among a cluster of villages near the quake's epicenter. "We'd just sat down to connect to the Internet," said Christa. When the house began shaking, they both tried to run down stairs and out.

"I didn't make it. The house collapsed and I was inside," she said.

Both legs were buried in concrete. A steel railing from the stairway protected her top half.

In an NBC interview the week after the earthquake, Christa is quoted as saying she didn't think about how badly her leg was hurt.

"I was so focused on not panicking and staying alive and figuring out what needed to be done to get myself out of there, I didn't worry about it right then."

Her brother and several Haitians tried to pull the concrete off of her. Lumarque went home to find a pickax, which Georges brought back and used to quickly break up the remaining concrete.

Then the two drove her on a motorcycle, with Georges "carrying her like a baby," she said, over a dirt road filled with potholes and injured people, to get to a U.N. peacekeeping mission run by Sri Lankans.

Christa spent the night on the ground with a couple hundred other injured people. Her right calf was held together just by tissue in places. Georges sat beside her all night, lending her his shirt to keep her warm, and when that wasn't enough, someone else's shirt. Just before dawn, she made it to a gatehouse with an Internet setup, and e-mailed information about herself to "everyone whose e-mail I could remember."

It said, "I'm alive, my right leg is crushed, and get me out," said Christa and her parents.

"It was pretty scary," said her mom.

Then the head of the Sri Lankan outpost took a motorcycle into Port-au-Prince and came back with an ambulance and a U.S. military officer. The ambulance drove Christa and others to a makeshift medical station at the airport.

Dr. Barth Green, a doctor from Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami who worked to improve medical care in Haiti, had sent a jet to Port-au-Prince to collect the most seriously wounded Americans he could find, Christa said. And he wanted to find three nursing students of his in Haiti that he was dead-set on getting out.

The day after the quake, she and the nurses and other wounded were on that jet to Miami by 6:30 p.m.

"We got lucky," said Taylor Brelsford. "We are passionately committed to giving back to the families and communities for a long, long time."



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