PORT-AU-PRINCE – A year after a school collapse that killed 97 students and teachers and left more than 100 injured, survivors and relatives of the dead say they feel abandoned by the government which has not delivered on its promises.
On the morning of November 7, 2008 shortly after 10 a.m. as the second period was beginning, College La Promesse Evangelique, a three-story cinder block school in the Nerette neighborhood of Petionville, fell in on itself.
The tragedy shook a country already reeling from the deadliest hurricane season in years.
President Rene Preval declared two days of mourning and convened a commission comprised of several ministries to look into the incident and to assist the victims.
A few days before a memorial service to commemorate the anniversary of the collapse, the area where the school once stood was a trash heap. Flies buzzed around piles of rotting food and empty plastic bottles.
Roody Jacques, who heads The Association of Victims of the Nerette Tragedy (ASSOVINERETTE) said the city of Petionville began dumping debris from a street widening project, and soon after people started throwing their garbage on the pile.
Families of the dead want the site, which still contains bodies that were never recovered, to be turned into a national monument where people can come to remember their loved ones. “We consider it a cemetery,” said Jacques. That request, like nearly every other one made by victims’ families has gone unanswered according to Jacques.
In the wake of the disaster, the government made payments to families: $2,500 for every death, $1,250 for serious injuries, and $750 for light ones. Full-time kindergarten and primary school teachers at College La Promesse, who where suddenly out of work, were given $1,125.
With the help of international donors and foreign aid agencies the government found medical assistance and psychological counseling for survivors.
The government also promised to find schools for the students of College La Promesse and to cover their fees at least until the end of the 2009-2010 school year.
But 10 months after the Association of Victims was formed to represent families, students, teachers and landlords of properties adjoining the school that were destroyed in the rescue effort, the group’s leaders say the government still has not made good on its pledges.
Jacques, whose 18-year-old daughter Vanessa was killed in the collapse, says they are not asking for money, “you can’t repay the loss,” he said, “it’s like having both your arms cut off.” Rather they want the government to do what it promised as well as prosecute those responsible.
Chief among those concerns is that the Ministry of Education has failed to cover the tuition of all the survivors and schools have begun threatening to send kids home while others have already done so.
Joseph Martin, a father of five, says he received a bill for $122 for enrolment fees and one month’s tuition from the Methodist school in the adjoining town of Delmas, where his 17-year-old daughter was relocated after College La Promesse collapsed. The school wanted to expel her but he said he was able to negotiate a grace period while the victims’ association tries to get the government to pay the fees.
In the wake of the disaster, several schools offered to take students from College La Promesse. One of those was Foyer Chretien school, a thirty-minute walk from Nerette. Two weeks ago, the families of 54 students at the school who came from College La Promesse were told to pay their overdue fees for this year or they would have to leave.
According to Toussaint Vilaire, director of academic affairs at Foyer Chretien, the school waived tuition last year, “but we can’t go on,” he said. The government donated school supplies but hasn’t offered the school any money, Villaire said.
The Ministry of Education official responsible for assisting students of College La Promesse, Marie-Alice Pierre-Louis, said there was a simple explanation; Foyer Chretien has failed to submit an invoice to the government.
“I personally went there,” said Pierre-Louis, “and told them to write up a list of students with the cost and they never did.”
Defending her ministry’s record, Pierre-Louis held up a sheet of paper listing all the schools where the government had covered the tuition of 247 displaced students last year.
She said that some checks had yet to be sent out for this year but they were awaiting the Minister’s signature.
On a recent weekday afternoon, a few houses up the street from the ruins of College La Promesse, Roody Jacques’ 17-year-old daughter, Christelle, sat on her front balcony gazing at an image of a young woman with a broad smile, it is the last pictures taken of her big sister Vanessa.
Christelle and Vanessa were in social science class together that November morning last year when the ceiling started coming down, the next thing she remembered was coming to in the dark. “I asked my sister are you there,” Christelle remembers.
They began to sing a Christian hymn together “Oh Sang Agneau de Jesus.” After a while Vanessa stopped. Christelle asked her why. “I’m not feeling well,” she answered.
A month and half later, as Christelle was about to be released from hospital where she was receiving treatment for nerve damage, she learned that her sister had died in the collapse.
Today, Christelle, is quiet and detached, she said she and her friends don’t talk about what happened. “Physically, I’m better,” she said. But when she walks down the street, sometimes she feels like the sky is going to fall down on her. She said she only received a couple of counseling sessions, when she was informed that her sister had died.
Her father says he’d like to get her more psychological help but he can’t afford it, and he admits he needs it too.
Across the street and down a steep winding path, Rebecca Nauris, 17, lives with her family in a simple cement house built on the side of a ravine. Nauris hasn’t been back to school since the accident. Her left leg was amputated below the knee, and her right foot is scarred and twisted.
She is still receiving treatment so she can be fitted with prosthetics that will enable her to resume her schooling – next year she hopes. With long-term inpatient care unavailable, her brothers must carry her on their backs up the ravine path to the road for visits to the World Health Organization clinic in downtown Port-au-Prince three times a week.
Like Christelle, Nauris says her body is recovering but she says she’s received little in the way of counseling and speaks very quietly, mostly looking at the ground.
Pierre-Louis said the Ministry of Education had partnered with agencies to make sure that any student who needed psychological help received it and that ongoing treatment was being provided. The Ministry had done its part she said, it was up to parents to make sure their children took advantage of the counseling services being offered.
Roseline Benjamin, director general of the Institute for Personal and Organizational Development which is overseeing psychological treatment on behalf of the government, admits that in the aftermath of the school collapse services were provided in a chaotic way and it took some time for a coordinated response to be set up. She also laments the fact that parents only began to receive counseling last month.
PREVENTING ANOTHER TRAGEDY
The collapse of College La Promesse raised concern about the physical state of Haiti’s schools. Fears were ratcheted up five days later when part of Grace Divine D’Haiti school in Port-au-Prince collapsed, injuring seven.
Shortly after those incidents, the rumor of a collapse sparked a stampede at a school in Clercine, a Port-au-Prince suburb, that killed one and injured 15.
In the wake of the tragedy, the Ministry of Education closed about 10 schools around the country that posed a risk, according to Ministry spokesman, Miloody Vincent.
But he added that the primary responsibility for ensuring the safety of schools buildings –
particularly private ones like College La Promesse which account for 80 percent of schools in Haiti – lay with individual municipalities and the Ministry of Public Works, Communication and Transportation.
Vincent said the Ministry of Education is not involved in granting building licenses for private schools, all it does is issue a permit to operate a school after a perfunctory check of the building. Those standards had not changed since the last year’s collapse said Vincent.
“You have to understand this is a Third World country,” Vincent said. “Kids need to go to school.” Vincent admitted that most school buildings were not originally designed for that purpose, but “the idea is to facilitate more children going to school while respecting a minimum standard,” said Vincent.
Vincent said if the laws on emergency exits were enforced, most schools would have to be shut down.
A judicial inquiry found that pastor Augustin Fortin, the founder and principal of College La Promesse obtained a building permit having met all the legal requirements of the City of Petionville and the Ministry of Public Works.
After the collapse, Petionville Mayor Claire Lydie Parent blamed a previous administration for issuing the building permit.
The director of the Department of Education at Petionville city hall refused to speak with the Haitian Times as did the Department of Civil Engineering. Repeated requests for interviews with the Mayor and the Deputy Mayor went unanswered.
Rodolphe Emile is head of Urban Planning for the Port-au-Prince region at the Ministry of Public Works. As such he signs off on all requests for building permits submitted to municipalities including Petionville.
Emile said in the wake of last year’s collapse, a lot was done to tackle the problem of unsafe buildings. “We had many meetings at the National Palace with mayors and local administrations in order to ensure that every municipality take measures to ensure that people build properly.”
Emile said the state promised to provide engineers to towns that lacked the resources to asses requests for building permits. He also said a document on land use planning and building permits was drawn up by the Ministry of the Interior, the Ministry of Public Works, and a number of municipalities, though he offered no details.
However, College La Promesse was not operating without a permit, its builder had satisfied all the legal requirements according the government’s investigation.
When asked what changes had been made to buildings standards that permitted the construction of a school building which eventually collapsed, Emile couldn’t name one. He also said he didn’t know if the building code required that developers provide information on the soil on which the building was constructed. He said that information was often missing from building proposals.
The weakness of the ground was one of the factors that was identified has having caused the collapse of College La Promesse.
THE SEARCH FOR JUSTICE
Immediately after his school collapsed, pastor Augustin Fortin turned himself into authorities. He was charged with involuntary homicide and grievous bodily harm as well as using a false title. The latter charge stemmed from his admission that he’d lied about having an engineering degree.
He was held in jail and eventually released pending trial. The homicide and injury charges were later dropped. The prosecutor, Jean Serge Joseph, said this was done because the building had been built legally.
Joseph said the Petionville city hall employee who issued the permit to Fortin had left Haiti and could not be found, and he found no grounds to lay charges against Public Works officials who approved the building permit.
Fortin’s trial will take place this month said Joseph. The false title charge carries a minimum jail sentence of one year and a three-year maximum. The prosecutor said he’d be seeking the maximum. “He’s cooked,” said Joseph.
But that is little satisfaction to survivors and relatives of those killed last year who want all those responsible to be held accountable for what they call a crime.
The victims’ association also has other demands. Parents want guarantees that their children’s tuition will be covered until they graduate from High School. The Ministry has said only that it will cover tuition through the end of the year and then see about further assistance.
College La Promesse’s High School teachers are asking for financial assistance. The Ministry of Education has rejected that request saying they only worked part-time. The victims’ association also wants financial assistance for 10 landlords whose buildings around the school were damaged or destroyed in the rescue effort.
On a recent weekday afternoon, Jean-Robert Jean Francois, stood on the ruins of the school. He pointed to his property behind where the school once stood. He said the two apartments which he rented out were completely destroyed. After months without a response from the government, he’s started rebuilding them himself.
Now that the one-year anniversary has passed, victims families say they are through with dialogue.
“We’ve been asking for a year and we got nowhere,” said Roody Jacques declaring that a lawsuit was in the works. “If it doesn’t work with the Haitian courts, we will go to the international courts,” said Jacques, “because justice must be served.”