Pilot reflects on the Haiti mission five years later
By The National Post
Jan. 15, 2015, Shearwater, N.S. - For 62 days, Capt. Chris Bowers piloted a Sea King Helicopter
ferrying aid and medical help into Port au Prince, after Haiti was left
in chaos by a 7.0 magnitude earthquake. Now a flight instructor based in
Shearwater N.S., Capt. Bowers is posting pictures from that disaster to
commemorate its fifth anniversary. He’s disheartened, he said, by how
quickly the rest of the world forgot about the tragedy in Haiti, and
laments the many stories of Canadian heroism that were never told.
By The National Post
Q. Why did you go to Haiti?
A. I was a co-pilot with 53 squadron in Shearwater
and I was attached to HMCS Athabasca. I was brand new, only six months
with the squadron, and we were ready to deship in the event that
something bad happened in the world. Unfortunately for the people in
Haiti, something bad happened in the world.
Q. What exactly did that job entail?
A. When you’re a co-pilot, your only job is to fly. I
wasn’t burdened with any other responsibilities other than just to
operate to 20,000 pound helicopter.
Q. Only that. Describe what you saw when you were there.
A. There’s a long, dramatic pause. It was a very
difficult thing to see, just complete destruction and chaos. For a
population of people that were already impoverished and to see whatever
last bit of remnants taken away from them, that was a very heartbreaking
thing to see. I could tell you about the rubble. I could tell you about
the bodies lying on the fields and I could tell you about the makeshift
signs people used to make in those fields saying how many people had
died in their neighbourhoods. I can tell you about the little girl we
had to fly back [to the ship] to have her arm amputated. It was the
lowest form of civilization that I’ve ever seen in my entire life;
everything collapsed, the foundations of government, order. It was the
lowest I’ve ever seen.
Q. How do you feel about the level of aid we delivered to Haiti? Was it enough.
A. I’m no scholar. I don’t profess to be. I’m just a
pilot. I know that certainly we as Canadians were doing everything we
possibly could delivering aid. For 62 days, we did everything we were
asked to and, I think, more. There are so many stories that people did
down there that were never communicated to the public. You asked me what
I saw. It’s actually the smell that is the trigger for memories. I
remember that first morning when we launched from the back of the ship
to do area [reconnaissance] and all I smelled was fire, that smoke. I’m
not sure what your experience is, but the first time you smell death,
too. One lady died in the back of our aircraft, she was pulled from the
rubble three weeks after the earthquake and her pelvis was crushed. She
was beset with gangrene and all the things that happen to a crushed body
under the rubble for that period of time. She was brought into the our
aircraft and that’s something you never forget, that stillness. We did
everything we could to make her last moments on Earth as comfortable as
we could. One of the [other Canadians] held her hand in the back and we
all knew what was going to happen to her.
Q. One of the questions and criticisms of a lot of
what happened there was the fact that Haiti fell off the radar after a
few weeks. How does that make you feel as someone who witnessed this
enormous human tragedy that was forgotten very quickly?
A. It’s devastating. And that’s the reality of the
24-hour news cycle. At the time, there was the Olympics, and then there
was Russell Williams and all the depravity he had demonstrated. And from
an editor’s point of view, if you’ve been watching two weeks of
helicopters dropping off aid, by 15 days, you’ve already told that
story. But I think our participation is something Canadians need to be
very, very proud of. This wasn’t just another mission.
Two-hundred-and-thirty-thousand people died. Over a million people lost
their homes and all the Canadians who were there tried to do their very
best. Canadians need to be proud of this as much as Juno or Vimy or any
of these things, I think.
It’s something that’s going to stick with me forever.