Mission to Haiti turns deadly serious for Bay Area family

Jouncing around in a van headed for a rural compound outside Port-au-Prince, Nicasio resident Mark Pasternak had no idea he was experiencing an earthquake — much less one that would bring Haiti to its knees.

Pasternak, who grew up in Los Angeles and owns Devil’s Gulch Ranch in Marin County, has endured his share of shakers. But traveling along a bumpy road in a van packed with people — including his two teenage daughters — Pasternak didn’t register this big one.

Until he looked out the window and saw sheer terror on Haitians’ faces.

“All of a sudden, I see these people freaking out,” he said. “Then I see walls wiggling. … That computes.” It was an earthquake.

“But the other part of my brain says, ‘They don’t have earthquake standards … This is a community that has never experienced an earthquake.’ People are streaming out of their houses, screaming.”

Thus, in a heartbeat, a Bay Area family’s humanitarian mission to Haiti dramatically changed course.

Pasternak, his wife, Myriam Kaplan-Pasternak, and their daughters Lydia, 15, and Kyla, 12, would ride out the trauma unharmed — but not together.

Students tremble in the immediate aftermath of Haiti’s Jan. 12 earthquake. photos/courtesy of pasternak family

Myriam, a veterinarian deeply committed to aid work, was on her way to meet the rest of the family when the temblor struck. So in the initial chaos, both parties were uncertain of the other’s safety.

And both Myriam and Mark said that had they not been running behind schedule, and had they reached their destinations on time, they might not be alive today to tell their story and continue their efforts to assist Haitians.

But the family did find one another after the quake, and Mark and the girls made it home after a harrowing few days spent waiting for flights. Myriam rejoined them this week after staying on to try and get help to victims she knew in rural areas.

The family reunited at SFO on Jan. 18, with hugs all around and TV cameras bearing witness. Myriam told reporters that they’d pulled 100 students from the wreckage of a school, mostly using their bare hands. “We had no resources at all,” she said.

Myriam, one of the only meat-rabbit specialists in the United States, travels to Haiti regularly for Partners of the Americas’ Farmer to Farmer program, teaching Haitians how to raise rabbits for food and economic sustenance.

The Riviere Froide school, once the largest multistory structure in the area, was completely demolished.

This was the second such trip for Mark and the girls, who first went to Haiti in 2007.

The family’s journey began as planned. After arriving in Haiti on Jan. 4, they spent several days in Aquin, outside Port-au-Prince, helping teach villagers how to build rabbit cages and manage the animals.

The second week of the family’s trip was to take them to another village, where they were scheduled to conduct more rabbit workshops with some 30 local families.

Pasternak and his daughters linked up with a few college students from Virginia and retired schoolteacher Barbara Wander of San Rafael, and were headed for Riviere Froide, a compound run by an order of nuns, when disaster struck.

Myriam had gone to Port-au-Prince with their driver to return a rental car and pick up more supplies before meeting up with her family.

Mark Pasternak and Myriam Kaplan-Pasternak with daughters Kyla (left) and Lydia.

After the 7.0 magnitude jolt, the road to the compound became impassible. So Pasternak, the other passengers and the van driver struck out on foot. They found the three-story Riviere Froide school in ruins.

At that point, reality hit.

“It was increasingly clear that we were going to be confronted with some serious mayhem,” Pasternak said the morning of Jan. 18, as he stood in his cozy kitchen, a menorah resting in the window sill.

In just a few hours, Pasternak and his daughters would reunite with Myriam, who was due to arrive in San Francisco that rainy, blustery afternoon. This would be the second emotional reunion for the four in the span of a week.

When Pasternak and his daughters first arrived at Riviere Froide, he guided them to safety in the small public plaza, commanding them to stay with fellow travelers while he set off to ascertain Myriam’s whereabouts.

He got nowhere.

An earthquake survivor in Port-au-Prince who gave birth to a son at the Israeli field hospital on Jan. 17 decided to name him Israel as a token of appreciation for the country that helped her. photo/jta/idf

Realizing he’d learn nothing in the chaos, he dove in to help pull victims from the rubble. Hopping on top of the pancaked building, passing a crushed corpse, he helped pull the living from the rubble. “I was amazingly calm,” he said in retrospect.

When Myriam showed up a short while later, “she hugged the kids,” he recalled, “and began doing triage.”

As aftershocks continued, the family spent the night assisting others. Husband and wife pulled victims from the rubble, while the girls did what they could to comfort some of the children. Lydia sang songs to them, and stayed with a group of girls through the night until their parents arrived.

“It’s really sad,” Lydia said of the devastation, “cuz the country was already really poor. I know a lot of people have been working there … and now they have to start all over again.”

Lydia, a high school sophomore, said that when her mother decided to remain in Haiti for a few more days, “We didn’t really want her to,  because we were worried another earthquake would happen.

“She was really brave to stay,” Lydia said.

Mark Pasternak at home with daughter Lydia photo/liz harris

Pasternak wasn’t too worried. Myriam is fluent in French, conversant in Creole and a seasoned traveler, he said. “Myriam and I are big believers in setting an example. I understand and agree with Myriam’s passions.”

Her big passion is agricultural development in developing nations. Through DG Educational Services, the nonprofit she and her husband established, Myriam travels to Haiti several times a year, staying there anywhere from two to four weeks per trip.

Once she left her family at the Port-au-Prince airport, Myriam tried to make contact with members of her team, with whom she has been working for years, and get them aid. “We were lucky, we didn’t lose any of our staff members,” she said, though many of them lost extended family.

And as of Jan. 19, she feared as many as 100 students still were trapped in the demolished Riviere Froide school.

While earthquakes are nothing new to Californians such as Myriam, who grew up in Sonoma, “the Haitians are thinking it’s the end of the world,” she said.

This was the first major earthquake Lydia had experienced, and it has left her shaken. Now when she enters a building, she said, she immediately checks for the nearest exit.

But she feels safe in the home that her dad built. “I trust him,” she said.

He laughed.

A self-taught builder who grew up in a left-leaning, Jewish household in the Echo Park section of Los Angeles (“I was a red diaper baby”), Pasternak was expected by his father to become a doctor. But instead of going to medical school, he bought a horse and 65 acres in Nicasio, pursuing his long-held dream of becoming a farmer.

In addition to building his 3,000-square-foot home, tucked into the bucolic hills of West Marin, Pasternak and his wife have steadily grown Devil’s Gulch Ranch into a sustainable diversified farm.

The couple met horseback riding in Point Reyes in 1980. They married in 1987. In addition to their brood of cats and dogs (six felines and eight canines — three of them pets and five for sheep herding), they raise rabbits, pigs, sheep, quail and quarter horses. They also have a small vineyard, and operate a summer farm and nature camp (with scholarships for low-income children).

Myriam “cut her teeth” on international work with the Peace Corps from 1983-84, said her husband. Stationed at an oasis in the desert in Niger, West Africa, during a severe drought, she witnessed starvation firsthand and was determined to do something about it.

Once back in the States she went to veterinary school at U.C. Davis, “with the belief that animal agriculture was a key component to being able to survive in undeveloped countries,” her husband said.

Pasternak credits his wife with taking the Farmer to Farmer rabbit program “to a whole different level.”

Pasternak and the girls arrived in San Francisco on Jan. 16. They were able to board a U.S. Coast Guard evacuation flight Jan. 14 out of Haiti to the Dominican Republic, then languished at the Santo Domingo airport before catching a flight to the U.S.

Even before arriving back in the Bay Area, during a stop in Philadelphia, Pasternak began getting media attention. It’s all for the good, he said.

He wants to bring attention to the Riviere Froide school, which he estimates had as many as 400 students inside when it collapsed. “That school as far as we know has not seen any search and rescue” efforts, he said Jan. 18.

During rescue efforts in the immediate aftermath of the quake, Pasternak was heartened by the fact that parents were not crowding round, frantically searching for lost children. Then he learned that many of the children were orphans; there was no one to come claim them (an orphanage was located nearby). Also depressing: The first floor of the school accommodated disabled students, who most certainly perished.

“One of the sad facts that has come out is that there really will never be any clear accounting” of lost lives, he said.

 Pasternak also cautioned Americans not to come down too hard on Haiti for inadequate building codes or lax enforcement. While geologists were aware of fault lines, earthquakes are not common in Haiti. “One needs to be very, very careful in assessing blame,” Pasternak said. “You cannot anticipate something that is not your reality.”

His family has posted pictures they snapped on the ranch Web site, wwwdevilsgulchranch.com, and is urging donations be sent to relief efforts.

“Our focus right now is to get repairs done before the rains start in March,” said Myriam. “It’s going to be a challenge.

The Pasternak family will speak about their experience during the earthquake at a benefit for Haiti, set

for 5:30 p.m. Jan. 31 at Muir Beach Community Center, 19 Seascape Drive. Donations start at $50 per person. Information: http://tinyurl.com/ybzgj5o.

Liz Harris

Liz Harris is a J. contributor. She was J.'s culture editor from 2012-2018.