KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — “It has been a very long and deadly night for our friends and family in Haiti,” Mark Zimmerman e-mailed the worshippers of White Stone Church.
And in Knoxville, too, the morning after the earthquake – Wednesday, Jan. 13 – had been slow to come.
Zimmerman, the church's worship pastor, and others had been awake all night – consoling one another, trawling the Internet for information, dialing phone numbers in Haiti again and again.
But six years after the congregation stumbled on the country and then embraced children in two of its mountain villages, they felt powerless.
Atanie – the 4-year-old girl who church members Lorie and Darrell Johnson hoped to adopt – was dead, crushed when much of the orphanage at Coq Chante collapsed.
Sixteen girls who'd fled the orphanage – including Valancia, the 12-year-old the Zimmermans sought to bring in to their family – had spent the night sleeping on the ground and in the bed of a truck.
Another girl, 10-year-old Odette, was supposed to have been with them. But it turned out she'd gone to Port-au-Prince with her birth parents to finish the adoption paperwork for church members Andy and Allyson Coleman. No one had heard from them since. The fate of Wousamy, 6, was also unknown.
“I don't have words for the past 24 hours,” Allyson wrote on the family's blog, Bringing Odette Home.
“I feel with everything in me that she is OK & I know that God is in control. I can't wait for a phone call with two words I have been longing to hear all day …
At a vigil Wednesday night, Allyson Coleman and Lorie Johnson wept in each other's arms.
But as the congregation joined in prayer, church leaders agreed on the need for action. The next day, member Brian Lloyd left for Haiti – through the Dominican Republic, then up to Coq Chante by motorcycle and on foot, a journey that would take three days to complete.
Mark began gathering supplies and a relief team to follow. Kevin Rudd worked the phones, calling elected officials for assistance and waking at 4 a.m. when circuits in Haiti were briefly free.
On Thursday morning, Allyson Coleman's phone rang just as she was signing in to have lunch at school with her daughters.
“Your baby's OK!” Rudd said.
Odette and her parents had survived the earthquake. They hadn't slept for most of two days, walking nonstop until they reached the mountaintop. Allyson found her twins, Abby and Molly, at the lunch table, and told them the news; cheers rippled through the school cafeteria.
Two days later, Karen Bates was in the living room, still staring at footage of the earthquake, when the phone rang: Wousamy was safe.
“Thank you, Lord,” she said.
Late on Monday, Jan. 18 – six days after the earthquake – the Obama administration announced that Haitian children in the process of being adopted by U.S. families would be allowed to enter the country immediately once expedited permission was granted. White Stone's families rushed to prepare, realizing children they'd awaited for as long as six years might arrive within weeks.
Three nights later, Rudd flew to Fort Lauderdale to rally with a pilot and private plane, paperwork for Wousamy and five girls from Coq Chante in hand. He called ahead to Lloyd and Zimmerman in Haiti, telling them to have the six children waiting on the runway on Friday morning.
Back in Knoxville, the congregation waited for word from Rudd, who rushed to the U.S. embassy in Port-au-Prince for final approval.
“THEY HAVE THE PAPERS!!!” Andy Coleman posted to his blog, as word came that the plane carrying the children had lifted off.
Then, “ODETTE IN IMMIGRATION!!!!” The group reached Florida and met up with some of the adopting parents.
It wouldn't be long now.
In Knoxville, families flocked to the airport toting balloons, teddy bears and welcome signs. Driving down Alcoa Highway, Karen Bates remembered the infant she'd first held six years earlier and fought back tears.
At the airport, more than 200 White Stone worshippers, families and friends packed a civil aviation terminal. When the planes taxied to a stop, they strained for a glimpse of children on the tarmac.
Then the doors slid open – and Wousamy walked into a pandemonium of embraces and cheers.
It took until Sunday night for Allyson Coleman – after a whirlwind day of introducing Odette to hot running water, tropical fish tanks and drinking straws – to take a seat at the computer and reflect on all that had happened to her family and to White Stone.
“God is GOOD!!” she wrote.