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The last flight to Port-au-Prince

As their prime minister tours Haiti, Canadian survivors of the recent earthquake reflect on how close they came to tragedy.

Canada's Governor General Michaelle Jean pauses while speaking about the Haiti earthquake in Ottawa, Jan. 13, 2010. Canada has a large Haitian population, and Jean is also Haitian-born. (Blair Gable/Reuters)

QUEBEC CITY, Canada — Sometimes, the difference between life and death is almost too absurd for words. Just ask Martine Garneau.

Garneau lives with her black Labrador in a modest bungalow, in a suburb of historic Quebec City near the Montmorency Falls, which are higher than the famous ones in Niagara. It’s the house she grew up in.

She retired last September, at the age of 60, from a human resources job at a local school board. Still full of energy, she volunteered with Mission Corail-Haiti, a Christian missionary group, to administer a project of education and health services in a town west of Port-au-Prince.

Her four daughters were supportive; her seven grandchildren asked about her safety. Before leaving, she signed a document stating her body was to be left in Haiti if the worst came to pass.

Canada has strong links with Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. Governor General Michaelle Jean, Canada’s acting head of state, is of Haitian origin. And an estimated 100,000 people of Haitian origin live in Canada, most in the largely French-speaking province of Quebec.

On Jan. 12, Garneau boarded an Air Canada flight in Montreal with three other volunteers on her development project, including Camil Perron, a 60-year-old truck driver, and his wife, Suzanne. It was the last direct commercial flight from Canada to Haiti before millions of lives were changed irrevocably.

“Everyone was so happy,” she says, “Everyone was so confident.”

The flight landed a little more than two hours before the Earth’s crust convulsed. Many of the 195 passengers on board barely had time to check into their hotels.

Below everyone’s feet, two slabs of the Earth’s crust, the North American and Caribbean plates, were pressing against each other along the colorfully named Enriquillo-Plantain Garden fault system.

At 4:53 p.m. on Jan. 12, the plates suddenly “slipped,” unleashing a magnitude-7 earthquake. It was physics and geology on a grand scale. Yet scientists could not have predicted its timing.
What science also can’t explain are the chance circumstances — some would say acts of destiny — that sometimes leave survivors more troubled than death itself.

From the Port-au-Prince airport Garneau’s group traveled to a Canadian-owned guesthouse in the capital. They decided to take a dip in the pool before supper.

“We were all in the pool, drinking a beer,” Garneau says. “It’s so banal you won’t believe it, but a fly fell into my beer. Camil [Perron] did me a favor and went to get me another one in the kitchen.”

At that moment, the earthquake hit. Part of the guesthouse collapsed. The shake was so violent it emptied the water from the pool.