Hotel Montana before the earthquake.
(CNN) — It was Tuesday, January 12, barbecue night at the Hotel Montana. Guests were invited for cocktails under the shade of one of the hotel’s centerpieces: a magnificent century-old mahogany tree. Dinner would follow on the rooftop restaurant with its stunning view of Port-au-Prince.
Dan Woolley and his colleague David Hames were there — two fathers whose work for Compassion International brought them to Haiti to document the impoverished country’s most vulnerable: the children.
The two were just returning from an interview with a Haitian woman. Two of her children, she’d told them, are mentally handicapped because of the squalor that surrounds them. Her third, sponsored by Compassion International, is healthy.
Both men were excited. The woman’s story, they thought, would touch people and inspire generosity. Into the lobby they went, cameras in hand.
All over the spacious hotel, it seemed, were humanitarians — Americans, Canadians, French and a host of people from other nations. Some, like Woolley and Hames, worked for relief agencies; others volunteered through their churches or schools.
Rick Santos was there with five colleagues from IMA World Health and the United Methodist Committee on Relief, all focused on strengthening Haiti’s health care.
Britney Gengel had arrived with 11 classmates and two professors from South Florida’s Lynn University. She excitedly called her mother shortly before 4 p.m. After a day spent feeding the poor, she told her: “I’ve found my calling.”
One of the students’ chaperones was Richard Bruno, a beloved Lynn professor who had traveled the world as a doctor for the U.S. State Department’s Foreign Service. He was the physician on international trips for three secretaries of state, including Colin Powell.
He’d lived all over — in Nigeria, South Africa and Germany, to name a few. He’d survived a 2003 al Qaeda attack on a compound housing Westerners in Saudi Arabia.
Home now was sunny Boca Raton, Florida, and the father of three girls was looking forward to reuniting with his eldest daughter in a few days. Lauren, 28, was flying down from New York to go over details of her upcoming wedding. Bruno had told her he’d be home in time to pick her up at the airport on Friday.
“Send your itinerary,” he’d said.
Sarah Lauture had already completed her trip home. The 28-year-old banquet manager at Hotel Montana was a native Haitian who’d returned to her country in fall 2008.
Ever since she was 14, Lauture had talked of becoming a hotel manager. After studying languages at McGill University in Canada, she’d earned a graduate degree at Paris’ prestigious Vatel International Business School, which specializes in hotel and tourism management. She’d worked at luxury hotels in Washington and Miami before feeling the pull to go home.
Lauture was proud of her Haitian roots. She also knew her country’s troubled history from personal experience. Six years earlier, in January 2004, her father was kidnapped and killed in a wave of unrest that followed the ousting of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
Coming back to Haiti not only meant a chance to further her career dream, but also the opportunity to be near her mother again. Lauture loved the family-owned Hotel Montana — both the people she worked with and the guests she met. Mother and daughter had celebrated New Year’s there together.
On this day, her shift was to end at 5 p.m.
At 4:53, the Earth shook.
Hotel Montana after the earthquake.