Grim Mercy Mission to Aid Quake Victims

One of the first U.S. charitable groups into San Salvador to help victims of the earthquake on Sept. 10 was organized by Salvation Army branches in California. The group, which operated a medical clinic, included three San Diegans: Vernon White, who was chosen as medical director; Joel Lench, a longtime Navy surgeon, and David Henning, a medical equipment expert. The $250,000 operation (of which the Salvation Army has collected $25,000 so far in a special appeal) involved 51 people; 58,000 pounds of medicines, food and tents were taken by chartered plane to help survivors of the quake that killed 1,500, left about 250,000 homeless and caused an estimated $1 billion in damage, according to the Salvadoran government. Coronado free-lance writer Bill Manson accompanied the charter flight Oct. 17 and spent a week helping and observing. The operation will close down by Monday or be severely curtailed unless enough money is collected to continue the work.

The rainstorm set the mood. It shrouded us in gloom as we sailed across the electric green fields and squelched onto land between broken old DC3s and camouflaged transport planes. When our tail door opened, soldiers with G3 German automatic rifles stood blocking the way.

"They won't let us out," somebody whispers. People crouched halfway out of their seats, not wanting to stay where they were, but not wanting to leave the reassuring surroundings of the plane, either.

With the engines dead, the downpour booms on the plane's roof.

Officers from the Salvation Army hand the soldiers some papers. That seems to change things. They retreat to shelter under the starboard wing.

"Have a, uh, nice day everybody," Key Air charter airline's chief steward says over the intercom. Within five hours, he'll be in Miami, getting ready to take Club Med joy-makers to the Caribbean.

For the next two hours, while the soldiers stare and doctors and nurses stand under a cargo shelter trying to look casual, the Salvation Army officers hurry to get the equipment out of the plane's belly. One or two people start trying to engage the soldiers in stilted Spanish conversation. They even start laughing a bit when one surgeon persuades a group to pose for a photo, weapons nicely in silhouette.

But it's getting late. Nobody knows just where they are going to lay their head tonight, and as dark descends, you can feel apprehension in the air. The soldiers are loading tents onto huge trucks. Vague word filters through about finding a campsite near a church in a city block that vanished in the quake. There's something dankly comforting about that. City. Next to a church.

Someone runs up to Salvation Army Maj. George Duplain, who's come out of retirement for this job.

"Major, an extra person has turned up; we knew he might come. We told him if he got himself down here, we'd accommodate him. Fly him back home. He's from San Diego. Can we look after him?"

The major looks over a 45-year-old stocky man with a tough face wet from either sweat or rain. His pale blue eyes shine clear in the low light. He has somehow gotten in here through New Orleans.

"What do you do?" the major asks.

"Medical equipment. Supply it, service it. You have some of my stuff. Especially respiratory equipment."

"Well, you might have to service a shovel rather than a respirator, but if you're prepared to help, you're welcome."

We're on the road. There are only four of us in the lead car, including two Salvadorans and Duplain. The driver darts us back and forth, like a sheep dog, making sure everybody in the convoy takes the right turns, sticks together. This is said to be the road where the American nuns were killed. That doesn't help.

For a long half-hour, we climb through shadowy valleys onto what seems to be a sort of plateau. Most of the time, the road's good tarmac. But sometimes, we suddenly slow as our headlights hit tree trunks strewn across the road. We have to turn off and crawl through mud tracks. For a moment, ambush flashes across the mind, but it's only earthquake damage.

Houses, people and traffic start closing in. San Salvador.

Outside, you become aware of gaps between earthen houses--what looks like every second house, disintegrated, a pile of brown rubble, like teeth missing in an old man's face. The streets are becoming crowded with shacks on the sidewalk. Bits of blue plastic held up by sticks and string. People lying on splayed-out boxes on the pavement. Even where the shacks are not demolished, people are living outside.

Suddenly, we have stopped. In the middle of these crowds of tents and dirt and rubble, and people.

"I think this is where you are staying," the driver says. "You can get out here."

"Here? But I thought they said city square, next to a church."

"I think you must get out here."

Outside in the gloom, it is a confusion of faces, rubbish smells, mud and candles lighting blue plastic from the inside. The thought flashes through your mind of how naked, vulnerable, you are. A moment away from the car, under siege from women and children and the dark stares of men, you have to go back, just to make sure the car is still there.

Up over a shadowy rise of shacks and rubbish, a little tin shed, still standing, has a sign you can barely read. Casa De Oracion. Is this the church? An old hag stands defiantly at its door. In front of her is what looks like a rubbish heap. Dark shadows of dirt piles, the rubble, kids playing with sticks and wheel rims, and a pervading stink of feces and urine.

Suddenly, the rest of the volunteers are here, looking wide-eyed at the Halloween scene. A nurse looks, then turns away and dissolves into tears. All the fears of her family, the reputation of this country, the rainstorm, the guns, and now this. It's too much. Everybody else has that gulp-throated, saucer-eyed look.

"It's like 'Dante's Inferno,' " someone says. "Do they know what they're doing bringing us here?"

"That's funny," a Salvationist says. "You know what this place is called? Entrada Paraiso--the Gateway to Paradise."

The trucks arrive and gouge up through the mud to the empty space, clanking over a fallen sign which reads Apartamientos San Ricardo. The San Ricardo apartments were 54 little rooms here which disappeared in 10 seconds on Sept. 11.

In three hours, this will be our home.

Now, everything is action. Tent packs are tumbling off the back of the trucks, generators are being lowered gingerly to the ground, even medicines are being taken and put into piles for the morning. The soldiers, who looked so menacing, now show themselves for the shy boys they are, wanting to help. It's becoming like a Boy Scout camp. Nurses, doctors, volunteers--all are unpacking these family tents, clanking around in the dark, trying to work out which bits you stick into which other bits. Looking for stones to use to bash in the red plastic pegs to hold the corners down.

"Hold it," someone says. "Let's clear the rocks before we put this thing up. You ever slept on the ground before?"

"I can't sleep here! How many million airborne germs are floating 'round this dump since the quake?"

"John, don't anchor down till we get the poles through the slots. Haven't you ever camped before?"

"Would somebody get that tent pole out of my shoe?"

"I expected it to be rural, but not like this," nurse Lynn Cahill says as she strains to join two pieces of tubing.

The crowds who have gathered to watch all this--many of them must have lived here until the quake--stand looking in awe, as though the circus was coming to town. Some filter through to offer their services.

Ricardo, a carpenter who lived here. A businessman with vehicles he can put at the disposal of the Americans. Medical students who have been trying to run a clinic on their own and want to integrate with the Ejercito de Salvacion.

In the end, the little tents are up, most in a kind of Indian circle, for mutual reassurance. The Boy Scouts give way to the organizers, who run around sticking numbers on tents, organizing people into groups (one male in every tent of females, just in case the soldiers who've been assigned to protect the camp should be tempted).

Somebody has been told that--can you believe it?--there's a McDonald's in town.

One of the local businessmen offers to drive out and get some burgers. Nobody realizes yet that this McDonald's doesn't have a great reputation. Some time ago, it was shot up by a passing machine gunner, some say, because bad meat had once belly-ached a whole bunch of people.

A CBS crew has been witnessing events. "You staying here?" a photographer asks the producer. "Uh-uh. The contract states 'one room per employee,' " she says. "We're going to find a hotel."

It has been three frantic hours. San Diego's Dr. Vernon White, the gentle giant who's in charge of the medical team, has told everybody that they have got to get to bed so they can start work in the morning.

The camp is surrounded by soldiers with M-16s, German automatic rifles, even an officer with an Israeli Uzi. But the Salvadorans seem to find this perfectly normal.

In a moment of magic, suddenly everybody is lying down on their newly assembled camp beds, looking up at their tent tops, wondering if all this can be true. Every now and then there's a clunk! Someone's camp bed has collapsed onto the rocks. You can hear them shuffle up in their sleeping bag to put it back together.

The guys next door are taking flash pictures of each other in their bags, just in case nobody believes them afterward. The general conversation dies down. Bill Gudmuntsen, genius of the tent erection, starts a gentle snore. Farther off, the low sounds of soldiers' murmurs mix with the strum of a guitar somewhere on the street. It's 11:30 p.m.

Sunday morning shows where we are: In the middle of the city's most devastated district. In the scoop of a valley strung like a hammock between two volcanoes. Surrounded by what looks like a set for a war movie.

The volunteers of the Salvation Army's first contingent wake up in a kind of stunned torpor. They stumble outside into the dirt. There, hardier people have set up the "bathroom": a blue plastic bed pan with some of the precious imported bottled water poured into it, to wash your face in, do your teeth in, shave in.

On the other side of what's left of the street, a woman carries a wide basket of bread on her head toward what turns out to be a shop that survived the quake. People looking for breakfast are pointed toward the cold remains of last night's hamburgers.

In the distance, an anachronistic cable car, which winches pleasure-seekers up to a park atop one of the mountains, glints from the windows of one of its moving cars. Beyond that, just out of sight, stands Guazapo, the tunnel-ridden mountain that's San Salvador's nearest stronghold for the guerrillas. El Salvador's own contras.

White, the organizer, is determined to get things going by 10. Already, people are lining up outside the big tent. The soldiers are still there--part of the Salvadoran Army's Army of the Hacienda, which handles borders, customs and immigration--keeping the people outside.

The 37-year-old San Diegan is a good choice as chief of the doctors. He trained for his degree in Mexico City, helped out last year at the earthquake there, speaks a competent if not fantastically stylish Spanish, and is one of those people who can cope with two cultures, and two sets of attitudes and priorities at the same time. Or really three cultures, the American, the Salvadoran and the Salvation Army, which has its own standards.

For instance, everything stops this morning for prayers, a song and some encouraging words. It will be a custom that becomes strangely reassuring as the pressure of the days mounts.

White decides to set up a pharmacy on the dirt floor at the eastern end of the tent and uses boxes of medicines to build little seats and tables for the doctors to use. He decides to risk using three earthen rooms with no ceilings, and walls that wave at the touch--bare survivors of the quake--and turning them into consulting rooms.

One is to be for Joel Lench, another San Diegan, who got his experience as a surgeon off Vietnam with the Navy.

Nobody quite knows what to do with David Henning, the San Diegan who came down under his own steam and is not actually a doctor, but knows more than many about medical equipment.

He is under attack from many sides. His wife told him not to come back, if he went to El Salvador. He sits around, in the middle of the frantic groups, helping lift the odd package but not able to find something he can really get stuck into.

The rule has been established that no one can leave the camp without another companion who can speak Spanish, so that cuts out a visit to the local hospitals.

Finally, Henning is used to man the radio. He's not happy.

A few of us go out to a nearby area of slums. Colonia Modelo. Up the Calle Quince Septiembre. It hasn't seen much help since the quake. Its 85 families survived with 18 deaths--nine adults, nine children.

Irma Basca is in tears when we come up. She has survived, unlike her neighbor, but she hasn't anything to eat. She shows a pot with a bit of red-pepper-flavored watery soup.

"That's all I have! How am I going to feed my grandchildren?"

She has no way of getting news to her daughter in Canada that she's OK. She is terrified of sleeping near her house.

On the other side of the road, two girls lie outside on beds. They have injuries to their legs, and they haven't been seen by anyone since the quake. They lie quietly on rough beds under cloth shelter in the dust, surrounded by that yeasty smell that could be decaying food or decaying bodies, but is vaguely everywhere, till you get used to it. We promise to return.

But back at the entrance to Paradise, White says that will be impossible. He has hundreds of people lined up by now, and only eight doctors. They'll have to come here if they need treatment.

By now, the sun is creeping up, the lines are creeping out into the street, and everybody is rushing around trying to get a workable walk-through system ready for 10 a.m. The same faces that were looking open-eyed and frightened last night now have closed down to the dedicated matter-of-fact purposefulness of the medical professionals. In the tent's dirt floor interior, the dust is shafting through sunlight. The heat already is up in the 90s. Sweat is making little rivulets through the dust on their faces as they tote boxes and make doctors' couches out of bits of the buildings they're standing on.

"OK, everybody," White calls. "Now, does everyone know where they're working and what they're doing? Before we start, I want to remind you once again of what I've said a dozen times before.

"We are not down here to save El Salvador. We are not down here to bring sophisticated American cures. We have no sophisticated diagnostic equipment, no X-rays, 99% of of our diagnoses is going to come out of our own guesswork and memories of med school.

"Remember, a lot of the things you see we just won't be able to treat. If we get people in real need, then we'll try to find a hospital for them. But just your presence, the fact that you care, is going to mean almost as much as the cures you prescribe.

"Remember, they've all just had an incredible shock. So even if they've got nothing apparently wrong with them, make sure you give everybody something. Touch them. Show somebody cares. That's going to be worth a hundred X-rays. OK? Are we ready? Let's throw the switch, Blackie!"

He turns to Norman Blackie, sitting at the front reception desk, made of skimmed-milk boxes, and serving as the official registrar of patients.

"Tell the soldiers to let the first one in."


The cry rings out from clinic No. 3, the last of the three wavy, roofless earth rooms. Dr. Kevin Ehrhart is standing underneath a dangling poster of Los Jacksons, pulling the arm off a Hacienda soldier. Or that's the way it sounds. Ehrhart has just learned there's no morphine in the medical supplies. He's trying to reset a dislocated shoulder cold-turkey.

"Just a minute," Jim Fox yells from No. 2 next door. "I may have something."

He goes to his tent, rummages around in his dusty bag, hauls out a plastic pouch. Its label says "morphine." Five minutes later, the soldier's shoulder is relaxed, and Ehrhart just clicks him back into place.

"A translator! I need a translator. Vernon, I really do need one full-time in the pharmacy."

"Tell her this is going to hurt a moment while I prick through the nail."

"Come and look at this one. This is real shell-shock."

In Jim Fox's room, a girl sits crouched up around herself, the whites of her eyes showing for a moment when he injects her with a tranquilizer.

"Now just stay quiet a minute. There's nothing I can do with her. She's weak, sick, and her husband tells me they've got not food. But what can you do?"

He gives her five minutes, then says, "I'll have to move you my dear," and gently coaxes her out, to make room for the next.

Mike Olsen, who's natural wheeler-dealer nature has turned him into the Radar of the group, is preparing a list of all of the medicines and things like pots and pans that the camp doesn't have.

He is stocky, practical, the kind you expect to have been a logistics man in Vietnam. He feels the responsibilities heavy on his shoulders and walks 'round camp with the nervousness of a man who needs to remember a hundred things to do without a list to help him.

Out in the government warehouses and pharmaceutical headquarters around town, he's just the opposite, smooth, aware, getting through officials to the men below. Without speaking Spanish, he seems to oil his way through a hundred transactions a day. His job isn't made easier by the fact that the Salvation Army refused the Salvadoran government's strong pressure to give them all of the medicines and food direct.

So now, every day, he forages forth into the world of wheel and deal with a wish list of medicines and food and an armory of tents, Salvation Army T-shirts, baseball caps and official-looking letters. Tents and T-shirts have become dollars and cents, the new currency of aid.

The only one who seems to be seething with frustration in the camp is Henning. He has his Healthdyne BX 3000 oxygen concentrator, a machine used in place of oxygen cylinders. He has other gear. He wants to put them to use. He is trapped on the radio because he has to be part of the team. A very important Salvation Army tenet. It's on the second day that he breaks out.

"You want to come to the Rosales?"

An hour later, we are inside a vast green building made of bolted-together panels of pressed iron.

The Rosales hospital. Sent out prefabricated by the Belgians in the 1890s, it is one of the few buildings not affected by the earthquake.

Once out of the compound, Henning becomes efficient and driven. He seeks out the authorities, finds a psychologist who speaks English. Uses him to explain to the hospital's director about his machines. Accepts their invitation to make a series of lectures to their staff and residents on extending the use of their meager respiratory equipment. Visits two survivors from the quake who lost legs in their rescue and need prostheses.

When we get back, the Salvation Army makes known its displeasure with Henning. It is paying for his upkeep, his return flight. He must decide whether he is in or out. He is condemned to the radio for the rest of the week. Next time, he decides, he will come with his equipment solo.

As the week progresses, the camp's reknown spreads. From the first day, it has been crowded--203 the first day, more each day after. Two hundred being fed each evening, scores of bags of corn being issued daily. By Thursday, people are coming from as far away as the Guatemalan border. They did the right thing in setting up in the middle of the trouble.

It might not be so good for the volunteers' health--by Thursday many are getting flushes, Montezuma's Revenge, and have to retire for a day--but it has certainly brought the mountain to Mohammed.

The Salvation Army has headed off a potential rebellion by volunteers becoming desperate for baths, beds, and food they can eat without worrying. They haven't been able to get any decent plumbing in. No water, no showers, no decent lavatories. They have established a scheme wherein half of the staff goes up every second night to stay in the swank Siesta Hotel.

But as the success builds, so does the pressure. Especially under the frustrations of the limitations they struggle with.

There are compensating factors, like Carlos. The 8-year-old enthralls doctors and reporters alike with stories of how he witnessed the most spectacular crashes of buildings. His father and brother issue heavy winks and signs, just so he isn't quoted as the ultimate eyewitness. He has already acquired green surgeons' gowns, and knows how to use a stethoscope.

But people are getting tired, too, facing each new day's invasion of people and problems.

So the Army's prayer sessions in the morning, led by Bob Anderson, a psychologist whose job here is in the pharmacy, become something of a wonderful balm.

John Garcia, who led the first expedition to the Calle Quince Septiembre, has just been able to get a doctor to go up with him to tend to the injured girls. He returns with a queer look on his face. "The people?" he says. "They're gone. Their houses have all been flattened."

During the night, there's some gunfire down in the valley. It would have had everyone shivering a week ago. Now, they know it's probably just the army after thieves.

Those who are staying at the Siesta tonight have gone. Those who are left have snacked on the food cooked for the local needy--beans and rice. Some, like Ed Covert Jr., who administers a nature retreat back home, have cooked up dried packs of chicken a l'orange that they brought down with them. Now, most have gone to bed.

It's 11:15. People are creaking into their camp beds. Outside, on the one little dirt hillock left, 12-year-old Balthazar, the camp's youngest soldier, who is totally outweighed by his M-16, stands watching, as the last stragglers brave the lavatories, and young Carlos, of lengthy story-telling fame, corners a corporal to tell him about--maybe--his adventures among the falling buildings of San Salvador.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World