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Three W&M students unharmed in Haiti

  • Haitian tragedy experiencedJonna Knappenberger is safe after earthquake in Haiti.

    Courtesy of Mary Hanna

    Haitian tragedy experienced
  • Helping in HaitiGraduate student Landon Yarrington (pictured with Jonna Knappenberger) arranged a makeshift triage area on his street in Port-au-Prince shortly after Tuesday's earthquake.

    Courtesy of Mary Hanna

    Helping in Haiti
  • W&M students survive HaitiJonna Knappenberger is one of three W&M students known to be in Haiti at the time of the earthquake. All are unharmed.

    Courtesy of Mary Hanna

    W&M students survive Haiti
Recent William & Mary graduate Jonna Knappenberger was standing in the street of the Delmas 17 neighborhood of Port-au-Prince Tuesday, talking to some friends, just a few blocks from the home she was using during an independent research trip to Haiti when the earth moved beneath her feet.

She didn't stop shaking for two days.

“I can’t tell if it’s the earth or me,” Knappenberger, from Charlottesville, wrote to an official at W&M on Thursday morning.

She and her partner, W&M graduate student Landon Yarrington of Yorktown, were lucky. The home, and all of their possessions save the clothes on their back, two cameras, and a notebook were destroyed. Included was their passports and all identification.

But they’re alive and, as of mid-afternoon Thursday, back on American soil.

Knappenberger left her mother, Mary Hanna, a voice message that she and Yarrington had landed in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and were looking for a flight to Newport News. Hanna had no other details.

"I can't wait to hear the story of how they got out," Hanna said. "As soon as they get to Newport News, I'm going to be down there to see them."

Safe, but still in Haiti as of Sunday morning, is the only other student the College has been able to ascertain was in the country at the time of the magnitude 7.0 quake, freshman Danny Yates of Richmond. Yates is part of a five-person group from the Joint Haiti Committee of St. Bridget Catholic Church and the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart. They were in Haiti to check on its missions there. The group reported to Yates' father, Bill, that they were unharmed.

At the time of the quake, they were staying in Hinche, about 50 miles from the capital of Port-au-Prince. The Richmond Times-Dispatch reported that Yates and the group are scheduled to leave Haiti and return to Richmond Sunday night

The College has no official study abroad or service trips to Haiti at the present time. Knappenberger, a philosophy and anthropolgy double major, finished her studies at W&M in December and is scheduled to officially graduate when degrees are conferred this month. It was her first trip to Haiti.

Yarrington is a graduate student in anthropology who had been to Haiti several times.

Their trip began shortly after Christmas. Mary Hanna heard from her daughter by phone five hours after Tuesday’s earthquake. They had also been corresponding by email as they worked on a strategy to bring them home.

Both Hanna and officials of the College were in touch with the U.S. State Department. The College’s vice-president for student affairs, Ginger Ambler, also sent electronic W&M photo IDs to the State Department and Knappenberger to help the students prove that they were American citizens.

Turns out, it wasn't needed.

"We are very thankful that they are safe and were not physically injured in this very sad and tragic event," Director of University Relations Brian Whitson said. "It is hard to imagine what they have been through."

There seemed to be no end to the suffering, or drama. Even while dealing with their own uncertainties, the pair from William & Mary did what they could to help the local Haitians.

Moments after the quake, Yarrington returned to their home and began organizing a makeshift triage site where residents could bring their wounded. He estimated that there were 200 people gathered there in need of medical treatment. Knappenberger, meanwhile, traveled to Minustah with some Pakistani United Nations workers, and she and Yarrington were reunited on a U.N. base there.

“The U.N. people (American police, Romanians, and Chinese, among others) are being very gracious and kind letting us stay here and sharing their food and supplies,” Knappenberger wrote Thursday morning. “Landon has been volunteering at the triage hospital here. . . . .  Obviously, so many people need help here.”

Wednesday night at 10:30 p.m., as she and Yarrington were sleeping on the floor of the U.N. building, they and everyone else were roused and quickly loaded into U.N. cars. There was a report that a tsunami was coming and an exodus to the mountain community of Kenskoff was ordered.

The report turned out to be false, and they were herded back to camp. There, what must have seemed like an interminable wait for passage home finally came to fruition.