Wife, School Lost In Haiti Quake, Blind Violinist Vows To Rebuild Romel Joseph, who is blind, relied on his sense of touch to determine that there was no way out of the rubble of his music school in Port-au-Prince. He was trapped for 18 hours before friends freed him. His pregnant wife did not survive. Despite his ordeal, he plans to return to Haiti to play and teach again.
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Wife, School Lost In Quake, Violinist Vows To Rebuild

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Wife, School Lost In Quake, Violinist Vows To Rebuild

Wife, School Lost In Quake, Violinist Vows To Rebuild

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GUY RAZ, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

(Soundbite of music)

RAZ: Mourners gathered today in Port-au-Prince for the funeral of Archbishop Joseph Serge Miot and Charles Benoit, a vicar. Both died in the January 12 earthquake. More than a thousand people attended the mass, including the country's president, Rene Preval. Haitian authorities now expect the death toll could rise to 200,000. Several reports today said that the official search for survivors is over, but Haiti's communications minister, Marie-Laurence Lasseque, said that's just not true.

Ms. MARIE-LAURENCE LASSEQUE (Communications Minister, Haiti): For now, we're still looking for people. And when we stop, we'll say that loudly.

RAZ: In a moment, some commercial life returns to the Haitian capital, but first, to a story of survival and music.

(Soundbite of music)

RAZ: You're hearing Cesar Franck's violin sonata in A major, and it's one of several pieces Haitian violinist, Romel Joseph, played in his mind, note for note, as he sat trapped under the rubble of his music school for 18 hours. Joseph was the founder and headmaster of the New Victorian School. And back in 2000 - January 12, 2000, to be precise - the school accidentally burned down. He rebuilt it. And 10 years later to the day, the earthquake struck.

Romel Joseph is a Juilliard-trained violinist. He's almost completely blind. And on the day of the quake, he was on the third floor of the school. His young wife, pregnant at the time, was also inside. She did not survive. After his rescue, Joseph was flown to Miami for surgery. He spoke with me from his bed at Jackson Memorial Hospital.

Mr. ROMEL JOSEPH (Violinist): I remember when I was opening the door to get out and I heard this rumbling shakiness, pulled the (unintelligible) of my hand and the earth opened - and the ground opens, and then that's basically all I remember.

RAZ: You were - I understand you were lying under the rubble...

Mr. JOSEPH: Yes.

RAZ: ...something like 18 hours.

Mr. JOSEPH: Eighteen hours, yes.

RAZ: Part of your leg was trapped by the remains of the school that you had built twice. What did you do to keep yourself sane and hopeful?

Mr. JOSEPH: Well, at first, I was trying to see if I could get out because I figured there has to be opening somewhere. Even though I couldn't move right foot, but I, you know, try to find out what's around, and I realized I couldn't get out at all. So, you know, then you go through the whole - basically I'm going to die because I'm locked up. I can see there is no way out. I was completely surrounded by concrete, like big cement blocks.

RAZ: While you were trapped under the rubble, were you thinking about the music?

Mr. JOSEPH: Yeah. In fact, the music took maybe two-thirds of my time there.

RAZ: It was going through your head?

Mr. JOSEPH: No, what I did was I just schedule my time. I schedule my time 20 minutes to pray and meditate and then I picked the concerto or sonata for the rest of the hour to perform. When I say to perform, it sounds funny, but what you do is like, for example, if I perform the Franck sonata, which is 35 minutes long in my recital at Juilliard, then I would bring myself to that time, and that allows me not only to kill time, but also to mentally take myself out of the space where I was and to be in a more pleasant and positive space.

RAZ: You're performing that sonata note for note in your mind.

Mr. JOSEPH: Yes. It is note for note. That does a lot of things psychologically. It lowers the pain because you're not dealing with pain. You're dealing with pain. A lot of it is mental. And then at the same time, the next thing I know, (unintelligible) two o'clock, it's 2:40. So you kill 40 minutes right there. Then the next hour I did the Tchaikovsky concerto, that takes another hour. So the whole goal was to have a schedule all my minutes were busy.

RAZ: Hmm. Mr. Joseph, how many students attend the New Victorian School?

Mr. JOSEPH: About 298.

RAZ: And were any of the students in the school at the time?

Mr. JOSEPH: No, because they have to leave by three o'clock.

RAZ: So it was just you and your wife in the building.

Mr. JOSEPH: It was me, my wife and my friends. Just about six of us were in the building, luckily.

RAZ: Your wife, Mr. Joseph, did not make it, and we're very, very sorry for your loss.

Mr. JOSEPH: Oh, thank you very, very much. I mean, I saw her. I told her I'd be right back. I went to give a message, but we know the first floor went under the - and people would describe the earthquake to you who were on the streets, it's a certain time the earth just - the ground just opens up and then closed back up.

RAZ: Mr. Joseph, your hand was badly injured in the earthquake. What are your doctors telling you about whether you'll still be able to play the violin after your recovery?

Mr. JOSEPH: The doctor who did the surgery last night, he said, I bend your fingers and they - basically, all they did was put their fingers in the places, where they were supposed to be, and I have to wait at least a week so they can see what conditions they are and then they'll probably make a plate or something so that the healing continue. And I should be able to play again and teach. Because when you teach, you have to play for your students.

RAZ: You faced a test with your school in 2000 when it was burned down. And to the day - 10 years to the day - it was destroyed in the earthquake...

Mr. JOSEPH: Yes.

RAZ: ...for the second time. Will you return to Haiti once your surgeries are complete? I mean, what now for the future of the school and for you?

Mr. JOSEPH: Well, the school is a very important part of my life as far as offering education, especially in Haiti, I mean, where you have very little art education and music and the literacy level is so, you know, very low. So I feel more than ever it's important that Haiti needs all the schools that it can get. And we are going to reconstruct the school as soon as possible. We're going to start it, even the construction will not be complete or whatever, but the school will go on and test our design to see how powerful your will is.

RAZ: Hmm.

Mr. JOSEPH: So if you are a person that's weak willed, then you will fail your test and then that's that. But I need more than an earthquake to make me stop my work in Haiti.

RAZ: That's Romel Joseph speaking to me from a hospital bed in Miami. He survived the January 12 earthquake, but his wife and the music school he built did not.

Romel Joseph, thank you for sharing your story and I'm so sorry for your loss.

Mr. JOSEPH: Oh, thank you. But the life goes on; everything moves on and everything is going to - everything will be perfect.

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