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Diplomacy in Action

DS Honors Heroes of the 2010 Haiti Earthquake

May 5, 2011


By Kevin Casey, DS Public Affairs

On January 12, 2010, a magnitude 7.0 earthquake struck near Haiti’s capital city of Port-au-Prince killing 230,000 people, injuring 300,000, and leaving one million homeless.

After the quake, U.S. Embassy Port-au-Prince was structurally sound, but Regional Security Officer Steve Lesniak, Deputy RSO Pete Kolshorn and Assistant RSO Rob Little quickly found themselves in situations that taxed their endurance and demanded their best.

Assistant Secretary of State for Diplomatic Security Ambassador Eric Boswell and Diplomatic Security Director Jeffrey Culver presented Kolshorn and Little with Heroism Awards during a ceremony at DS headquarters in Arlington, Virginia, on April 20, 2011.

"This story is amazing," Culver said. "Their actions in the face of unimaginable devastation demonstrate once again how DS responds to crises around the world every day, every week, every month, year after year."

Special Agent Pete Kolshorn

Kolshorn was in his residence when the quake threw everything to the floor. The house sits on a ridgeline, so he leapt through the door for fear it would slide down the mountain. It didn’t, but he turned to see that a neighboring triplex housing three Embassy staffers was gone.

"I looked over the edge, and about two stories down I saw the crumbled remains of the house," Kolshorn said. "Looking right back at me was an Embassy political officer, buried up to her waist, face covered under dirt and blood and calling for help. To the left I saw her husband moving in frantic motions trying to free himself from the rubble, and farther to the left I saw an arm protruding from the wreckage."

Kolshorn and a member of the Embassy’s local guard force threw a garden hose over the cliff and made their way to the victims. Both the husband and wife had serious head wounds, and she had a crushed leg. Neighbors dug out the other victim, a man from the Embassy’s Defense Attaché Office, and helped Kolshorn bring all three up the cliff. Two more neighbors, who were doctors, told him the political officer’s husband would not live without medical care.

"The doctors helped us put the victims on makeshift stretchers: an aluminum ladder and two metal gates," Kolshorn said. "We did not have enough people to carry all three simultaneously, so we had to carry one or two at a time, then put them down and go get the other."

Kolshorn radioed the Embassy and learned vehicles couldn’t reach him. The group would have to get to a main road by foot. Collapsed buildings blocked their path, forcing them to carry the stretchers over mountains of rubble with steep drop-offs. With one flashlight in the darkness, it was impossible for the small group to avoid stepping on the dead and dying. They fought panic from recurring aftershocks and nausea from vapors as they trod streets flowing with gasoline. "It was horrific," Kolshorn said. "The walking wounded appeared like shadows out of the dust. Sounds of praying and screams of loss and pain filled the air. Some cries came from children that were beneath the rubble. We stopped to try and help one trapped child. Others came and were able to free him."

After seven hours, they managed to get the first stretcher to the main road. "I saw (Local Guard Force Trainer) Mike Stitt and two members of the Ambassador’s protective detail," Kolshorn said. "It was a moment of elation in the nightmare."

Kolshorn’s tour in Haiti ended in September 2010, and he is now at the Foreign Service Institute learning Spanish for his next position at U.S. Consulate Tijuana, Mexico.

For Kolshorn, the award brought back memories of that long night and the difficult months that followed.

"It feels nice to be recognized, but not a day goes by that I don’t remember the earthquake," Kolshorn said. "We lost the life of one American and five of our guards, but countless others lost their wives and their kids or suffered injuries, so the lives of a lot of the people that we work with closely were changed forever."

Kolshorn praised the equally heroic efforts of two others who helped him move the three injured Americans to safety that night.

"There was a guard who was down there with me, Jean Renald Belfort," Kolshorn said. "His phone was out. He didn’t know if his family was alive or dead. But he stayed with me the whole night, putting us and his work above even his own family. Loyalty like that is really what you remember from something like this."

Kolshorn also praised Vice Consul Emily Godfrey. "She had been in those houses," he said. "She had walked to the driveway to speak with a maid, and when the earthquake happened, she turned and the house went down the cliff behind her. She also stayed with me the whole night. She acted as Florence Nightingale. While I was strategizing how to move these people forward, she was the one talking to them and comforting them. She was never really recognized for what she did on that night."

Special Agent Rob Little

ARSO Little spent the night of the earthquake crisscrossing Port-au-Prince searching for clear routes back to the Embassy for all of the injured employees. To accomplish this, he picked up a Kawasaki 650 motorbike. "It saved a lot of time, but many of the main routes were still impassable even on the bike and required climbing on foot," he said. "There were landslides, concertina wire from walls that fell outward, concrete roof slabs that slid into the road, re-bar, cell towers, and thousands of abandoned vehicles."

The process took Little to most of the neighborhoods where Embassy staffers lived, and he checked up on people wherever he could. "I stumbled onto a USAID worker’s wife with a broken back lying in the street," he said. "Through a stroke of luck, the help of a handful of neighbors and a door pulled off a shack, I got her to a local hospital where she was later picked up and brought to the Embassy for medevac."

Little had been in Port-au-Prince for nearly two years, and wherever he traveled that long night, he met Haitians he knew. "They said, ‘My dad’s trapped here. We can talk to him. There are kids trapped here…’ It was almost every house that I went to, and there was no way to work on recovery in the dark without risking injuring them worse," he said. "Because I was on foot, I had no tools, no sledgehammers, no jacks, nothing, not even the knowledge of how to find people in these voids. I’ve learned a lot about how buildings collapse since, but at the time with the quantity of destruction, it was a very overwhelming feeling of insufficiency."

Reaching the collapsed home of Embassy Cultural Affairs Officer Victoria DeLong only confirmed Little’s insufficiency. Haitian guards from the Embassy’s local guard force had obtained enough information from survivors to know where DeLong had been when the quake hit. They had searched for her in the darkness. The guards amazed Little. They did not know if their own families were alive or dead, but they stood their posts for 30 hours and were crucial to many efforts, including searching for Victoria DeLong. Still, Little repeated the effort. He banged on the concrete. He shouted Victoria’s name into the voids. No response. He returned to his task.

Before the sun was up, Little had run all of the major routes in Port-au-Prince and given the Embassy a workable path for every victim that had been identified. The three Embassy employees Kolshorn had carried to the main road were driven the rest of the way on one of those routes. Meanwhile, Lesniak had created a helicopter landing zone beside the Embassy, and Kolshorn’s stretcher cases were among the first victims airlifted to safety.

When the injured were away, Little returned to Victoria DeLong’s house with a trained search-and-rescue engineer. They found her. Tragically, she had not survived the quake.

After the earthquake, Little extended his tour in Haiti to a third year. "Unfortunately, it’s a lot like it was a year ago," he said. "There are still probably 150,000 people living in tents."

After the awards ceremony, Little downplayed his heroism. "Any idiot can survive an earthquake, which is all I did," he said. "I just happened to not be under a piece of concrete. I was very fortunate that evening."

The experience gave Little an appreciation for contingency planning. "I used to be a little more relaxed when it came to carrying things with me," he said. "Now the back of my car is full of all kinds of stuff: tools and water and food and clothing, about enough to live off of for a couple of weeks."

In August 2011, Little begins his next assignment at U.S. Embassy Baghdad, Iraq.

Special Agent Steve Lesniak

The evening of the quake, RSO Lesniak immediately returned to the embassy and worked to identify the location and condition of all Chief of Mission personnel. He arranged meeting points for the staff around the city and dispatched motorcades to ferry everyone back to the Embassy. "In just a few hours we had a very good picture of staff accountability, injuries and damaged homes," he said.

Lesniak also spent the evening securing the embassy compound as thousands of earthquake victims gathered out front desperate for food, water, shelter, medical attention, and a way out of Haiti.

As staff members went beyond the Embassy walls to assist the injured, Lesniak and agents from the Drug Enforcement Agency served as escorts to keep the crowd from overwhelming them. Lesniak said this is simply what he was trained to do, to protect life and property, but he believes that his fellow DS agents Kolshorn and Lesniak "acted heroically throughout the entire night following the quake...with little regard for their personal safety and security."

At an earlier event, Lesniak was awarded a Superior Honor Award from the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs, but DSS Director Culver did not let him dodge the spotlight during the ceremony honoring the other members of the RSO Haiti team. "Steve’s remarkable exploits during and after the quake ensured that our government’s relief efforts were accomplished in the face of insurmountable obstacles and challenges," he said.

Haiti TDY Team

Also honored during the ceremony were the dozens of DS personnel who volunteered for the Haiti security mission after the earthquake.

The volunteers flew to Haiti from the Miami Field Office and various other DS field offices around the country. Together, they organized the safe evacuation of 16,000 American citizens. They assisted with security for a visit from Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. In addition, they ran daily convoys of food, water, fuel, supplies, and aid workers 192 miles over rough mountain roads from nearby Embassy Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic. They also located missing Americans, or their remains, for loved ones back home.

DS Mobile Security Deployments quick-response teams flew in to bolster perimeter security at Embassy Port-au-Prince. MSD also escorted search-and-rescue teams, conducted medical evacuations, and transported more than $1 million in currency from Port-Au-Prince banks to a secure facility. An MSD tactical emergency medic assisted with amputations in a makeshift operating room at the U.S. Embassy Chancery.

In February 2010, Director Culver traveled to the Dominican Republic and Haiti to personally thank the agents for volunteering for the DS response to the crisis. At that time, a large group had been in country for about a month, and they were passing the torch to another group that had just arrived.

"When you walk into an environment like that, you really never know what to expect," Culver recalled. "But what I saw from our agents—both that were on their way out and those that were on their way in—was a sense of pride and a sense of accomplishment. Hearing the stories first hand of some of the heroic activities of our people down there really made me proud to be a part of this organization, and it was really a high-water mark for our organization over the last several years."

DS Special Agents John Lee and Daniel Hanna accepted a Group Meritorious Honor Award on behalf of the Haiti security team.

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The U.S. Embassy Port-au-Prince honored several Regional Security Officers for their heroic efforts in January 2010.  Pictured are Steve Lesniak, Director Jeffrey Culver, Steve Little, Ambassador Eric J. Boswell, and Pete Kolshorn. The special agents were recognized during an awards ceremony at DS headquarters in Arlington, Virginia, on April 20, 2011. (U.S. Department of State photo)
State Dept Image / Apr 20, 2011 / Arlington, Virginia

The Bureau of Diplomatic Security honors the U.S. Embassy Port-au-Prince Regional Security Officers for their heroic efforts after the Haiti's devastating earthquake in January 2010.  Pictured (from left) are Regional Security Officer Steve Lesniak, Diplomatic Security Service Director Jeffrey Culver, Assistant Regional Security Officer Steve Little, Assistant Secretary of State for Diplomatic Security Ambassador Eric J. Boswell, and Deputy Regional Security Officer Pete Kolshorn. The special agents were recognized during an awards ceremony at DS headquarters in Arlington, Virginia, on April 20, 2011. (U.S. Department of State photo)

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