Friday, November 14, 2008

Haiti celebrates hero in tragic school collapse

14 Nov 2008 01:25:47 GMT
Source: Reuters
By Joseph Guyler Delva

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Nov 13 (Reuters) - An unemployed man who risked life and limb to pull children from the rubble of a collapsed school was celebrated as a national hero on Thursday by the impoverished Caribbean nation's president.

More than 90 people were killed in the disaster involving the La Promesse school, a ramshackle three-story building that collapsed in a slum on the outskirts of the Haitian capital.

Ronaldo Charilus, 29, said he rushed to the structure soon after it caved in last Friday.

"When I arrived on the site, I prayed and said to myself my life was not mine anymore. I left it in God's hands," Charilus told Reuters. "And from that moment on, I stopped thinking about my life but about the innocent children's lives."

Charilus, dubbed "Ronaldo the Hero" by the Haitian media, saved the lives of several dozen children trapped under the debris while putting his own life in almost constant danger, according to numerous eyewitness reports.

President Rene Preval, who visited the disaster site several times, told an awards ceremony at the National Palace on Thursday that Charilus was tireless in his efforts.

"The young man was all over the place. He worked with so much energy that he grabbed my attention," Preval said.

Though his dogged efforts continued day and night for several days running, Preval noted that Charilus was officially unemployed like so many other people in the poorest nation in the hemisphere.

"When I asked Ronaldo if he had slept, he replied to me by saying, 'Mr. President I can't sleep and I will never be able to sleep as long as I know there are people still trapped under the rubble,'" said Preval.

Several other rescue workers also were recognized for their service at the ceremony, but Charilus was clearly the star.

"He crawled like a snake through the rubble and squeezed himself into holes from which he was not sure whether he would be able to come out," said Gael Pinson, who worked alongside Charilus at the school site.

The school disaster, blamed on shoddy construction, struck as Haiti was struggling to recover from four tropical storms and hurricanes that killed more than 800 people and destroyed 60 percent of the nation's crops in August and September.

Charilus, the father of a 8-year-old daughter and 5-year-old son, said he acted as if his own children had been caught up in the tragedy.

"You know there is nothing a loving and responsible father won't do to save his children in immediate danger," he said. (Editing by Tom Brown and Vicki Allen)

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