SOUNDSLIDES: View images from Haiti taken by Flowery Branch resident Randy Puckett
FLOWERY BRANCH — The group had just finished building the new church, putting away tools and gathering with villagers in the building for a prayer of dedication.
And then the ground shook, more like rippled, as if someone had taken a blanket and waved it across a bed.
"I could feel pressure around my body and that’s when the building started shaking extremely hard," said Flowery Branch’s Randy Puckett, one of those in the group huddled at the church.
"We had cement coming off the walls hitting us in the face. That’s when we ran — we got out of there."
Moments later, the shaking was over. Everything was still. The sun was beating down from the clear blue sky.
But hearts were beating fast as Puckett and the others checked out their surroundings, inspecting the church they had just fled from.
"There was absolutely no damage (to the building), which was remarkable," Puckett said in an interview Wednesday night at his apartment.
What they didn’t know at the time, but would later discover in life-altering ways, is that they had just survived a magnitude-7.0 earthquake — a disaster that would kill as many as 200,000 people on the island nation of Haiti.
Facing a natural disaster was far from Puckett’s mind a few days earlier as he left his apartment off Thurmon Tanner Parkway and headed on a mission trip with Sandy Creek Baptist Church in Madison.
He had made the trip several times before with the church, where his younger brother, Cory Sexton, serves as an assistant and youth pastor.
"When they call it the biggest slum in the world, it is," Puckett said of Haiti.
"The people are hungry. It’s a voodoo nation. We’re trying to introduce Christianity to them ... and taking them food, money, water and clothes."
A tsunami struck the nation several years ago, wiping out village after village.
"We started going over there and putting sturdy roofs on these block walls," Puckett said.
A group of 12 men from the church arrived in the country at 10 a.m. Jan. 10. On this trip, they planned to build a church in the mountainside village of Grand Place Leroy, about 25 miles east of Port-au-Prince.
Happy to lend a hand, Puckett also was handy with a camera, snapping pictures of the countryside and Haitians.
He recalled handing out candy to some children, then taking a picture of another group approaching him with wide smiles after learning he had sweets.
Puckett also took pictures of Port-au-Prince outdoor markets and rough living conditions in the country, including shacks overlooking a river with trash streaming down a hillside to the water.
Just before the earthquake struck Tuesday, Puckett said he thought he heard the sound of semi-trailer trucks driving by when there shouldn’t be any such vehicles anywhere near them.
"I opened my eyes during the prayer and was looking around," he said. "You could feel a gust of wind coming up, but when I looked out the windows, the trees weren’t moving. And then rocks (on the floor) started bouncing up and down."
Then came the "extreme" ground motion.
"You had to spread your feet to even stand up," Puckett said. "At first, I thought it was a landslide because we were on a mountain.
"Once we got outside, (with) the noise and cracking rock and just the loud roar coming from the earth, I thought maybe an earthquake."
He looked to the ground to make sure a huge crack wasn’t forming under his feet.
"I think I was too scared to fear," Puckett said. "I guess you have to be a Christian to really understand this. When I ran out of that building, I felt like God’s hand was around me.
"If it was my time to go, then it was my time. But what better place to go than on the mission field."
They began to see signs of destruction about one-fourth of a mile away at another church, where outside walls had crumbled.
"Luckily, no one was in there," Puckett said.
The group journeyed back to their villa in Port-au-Prince.
That day and the next, as they ventured out again, the men saw nightmarish scenes at every turn.
"We saw streets blocked with bodies. They would stack them up to keep people off the streets because there was so much death and destruction," Puckett said.
"We passed a school and they didn’t have the children covered up, for whatever reason. They were just lined up on the sidewalks."
He also recalled a bulldozer scooping up bodies off the street and dropping them into a dump truck. And then there was the father with "an infant slumped over his shoulder, and the infant was obviously dead," Puckett recalled.
"People walking around had the most hopeless look in their eyes," he said. "There was just no hope. They were hungry and homeless."
At the time, "we were all in some sort of state of shock, so I don’t think (the scenes) affected me much," he said. "I think we were sort of blocking things. The last two nights, I’ve had a lot of dreams.
"When we got back to American soil, the emotions started hitting me."
Also, Puckett realized just how much danger they faced.
At some point during their stay, Haitians began to fear a tsunami would strike next. People desperate for food and other necessities started fleeing to outer parts of Port-au-Prince.
"The guy who owns the (villa where the group stayed) came to us and said, ‘Man, I hate to do this, but you have got to get out of here. If you stay any longer, you’re going to be in a fight for your life,’" Puckett said.
The owner said, "The best place you can go is the U.S. Embassy."
The group didn’t waste time. The men piled into the back of a pickup truck and headed to the embassy.
"We had to travel these streets with people all around us," Puckett said. "So we had the constant fear of being attacked or yanked off the truck."
He recalled seeing one old woman who stared at the men and, with her forefinger, made a slashing gesture across her throat.
"If looks could have killed, we would have all been dead," Puckett said. "It was getting extremely dangerous."
Jan. 14 arrived and, after some frustrating delays, embassy officials finally arranged for the group to board a C-130 Hercules transport plane and head home.
The plane had been in the air for 2½ hours.
"Right before we get to where we’re going to land, we feel the plane descending" and joy beginning to spread among the passengers, Puckett said.
"Right before we land, the pilot just nosedives that plane. I thought, ‘Oh Lord, now we’re going to die.’ When he hit that runway, all 170,000 pounds of that plane bounced."
Turns out one of the plane’s engines had caught fire.
The plane had landed at Homestead Air Force Base in Florida.
"I saw some people coming out of the front of the plane," Puckett said.
"I don’t know if they were the pilot, co-pilot or crew members or what, but I walked up (to one of them) and said, ‘Sir, first I want to thank you for serving in the U.S. military. Secondly, I want to thank you for bringing me home.’
"And (he said) the best words I’ve ever heard in my life. He looked at me and said, ‘Sir, you’re a U.S. citizen. You were coming out of there.’ And then he saluted me, and that choked me up. That’s one of the highest honors I’ve ever had."
The church group then was flown by twin-engine Cessnas to a private airfield in Madison.
They arrived at 12:32 a.m. Jan. 16 "to a huge reception," Puckett said.
In spite of, and maybe even because of, horrific events, he said he believes he will return to the Haiti mission field again.
"I think I’ve got to," he said, sipping some Haitian coffee. "My mother says ‘No,’ but I don’t think I have a choice. We’re needed there, to build churches and teach them about God.
"We have to build them a safe place when the storms come in."