He might have been greeting his mother after an exciting day at school, but the little boy with the shining eyes, the blazing grin and his arms outstretched towards his mother had just spent seven-and-a-half days buried in the ruins of his two-storey house in Port-au-Prince. His name is Kiki, he is eight years old, and he was rescued late on Tuesday night along with his 10-year-old sister by two American teams. Haiti's disaster has yet to produce a more stunning advertisement for the strength of the human spirit.
But on the day when a powerful aftershock sent Haitians fleeing in panic into the streets, the elderly woman trapped in the rubble of Port-au-Prince's cathedral ran him a close second. She, too, was buried for an entire week, and cried "Thank God, thank God" and sang in jubilation as she was carried away on a stretcher.
Ena Zizi had been praying in the city's cement cathedral when the walls and ceilings collapsed, killing the archbishop and burying many worshippers alive. She suffered a broken leg and a dislocated hip but was otherwise unhurt and kept her spirits up by talking to a priest who was also entombed. But after some days his voice died away, and she was left alone with her faith. "I talked only to my boss, God," she told her rescuers. "And I didn't need any more humans."
Rescuers finally succeeded in pulling her out – covered in dust and bits of masonry, desperately thirsty but defiantly alive.
"It was an amazing thing to witness, no one could believe she was still alive," said Sarah Wilson of Christian Aid. "It seems rescuers were communicating with her and managing to get water to her through a tube. She was singing when she emerged. Everyone clapped and cheered."
Some of the rescuers, a Mexican team formed after Mexico's earthquake of 1985, clutched each other at the sight, and some burst into tears.
Asked how she was feeling after her ordeal, she said, "I'm all right, sort of." Her son Maxime Janvier said he had never given up hope that his mother was alive. "We were praying a lot for this to happen," he told CNN. Yesterday she was airlifted by a US coast guard helicopter to an American ship, USS Bataan, for an operation.
Other survivors included a boy aged five said to have been pulled from the ruins of his home by his uncle, plus a girl aged 10 and her brother aged eight who were also rescued.
Yesterday's aftershock was of 6.1 magnitude and set damaged buildings in the capital rocking again – but the epicentre was 60km west of Port-au-Prince and there were no immediate reports of fresh damage or casualties.
Among others rescued yesterday was Elisabeth Joassaint, a 15-day-old baby, who was found alive in her bed after nearly a week. Her mother, Michelene Joassaint, 22, told The Wall Street Journal that after nursing the baby she had gone downstairs when the earthquake struck, forcing her to run out of the house as the walls began to crumble. She had been unable to return. At the makeshift hospital where she nursed her baby after the rescue, she said: "It was the mercy of God." Michelet Joassaint, the baby's grandfather, echoed her sentiments: "Everybody knew the baby was dead, except the Lord."
The United Nations said yesterday that 121 people had been rescued from destroyed buildings by international teams. An unknown number have also been saved by relatives and friends, but hopes of finding more are dwindling and the rescue effort is winding down now. Captain Joe Zahralban of the South Florida Urban Search and Rescue Team said: "You have to accept ... that the potential for survivability is extremely low. It gets to the point where you can only risk the rescuers' lives so much before you say, we don't think there is anybody left."
Meanwhile the French relief agency Médecins sans Frontières, which has seen several of its flights turned away from the capital, accused the US of causing severe delays to doctors on the ground.
"We lost three days," said Françoise Saulnier, head of the group's legal department. "And these three days have created massive problems with gangrene, with amputations that are needed now, when we could have really spared these people."
The miracle of Kiki: How did he survive?
Kiki's rescue is testament to the resilience of the human constitution. The biggest threat to his life, assuming that he was uninjured when the building collapsed, will have been lack of water. We lose water through sweat, urine, faeces and in our breath. That water must be replaced if our organs are to continue to function.
If the conditions were hot where Kiki lay and he had no water he would have become dehydrated, leading to increasing lethargy and confusion. In a baby locked in a hot car, this may happen in hours. In an adult in ideal conditions it may take three to five days.
Haiti has suffered torrential rain since the earthquake so it is possible that water trickled down and he was able to lick or suck sufficient moisture from the masonry surrounding him to stay alive. If he did not, he may have been close to the survivable limit. Lack of food will have been less of a problem. Healthy adults can go for up to eight weeks without food, provided they have access to water. Kiki has little, if any body fat, judging by his picture on the front page, but even he will have had enough stored to see him through his ordeal.
How he coped mentally can only be guessed. But children show astonishing resilience in the face of adversity.
Jeremy Laurance, Health EditorReuse content