Port-au-Prince, Haiti (CNN) — A sweet sadness blankets Hector Mendez’s face, appropriate, perhaps, for a middle-aged man who has seen suffering and miracles at once.
Many rescuers have left the Haitian capital, no hope left in their hearts 16 long days after the massive earthquake that ravaged this country and entombed so many in the rubble.
But not Mendez.
He steps down into the dark crevices of a destroyed building every day to look for two people: Daniel Varese and his 4-year-old son, Mateo.
Mateo’s mother, Marylinda Gonzalez Davi, a U.N. employee from Guatemala who has been living in Haiti for four years, was at work when the earth shook violently on January 12.
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Rescuers ulled her 1-year-old daughter, Fabiana, from the rubble alive, but there was no sign of her husband and son. She refuses to believe they are dead.
Word of her plight reached Mendez, who had arrived in Port-au-Prince with a team of 25 Mexican rescue workers. For the last week, he has been by Gonzalez’s side.
His orange jumpsuit dulled by dust, Mendez and his team have made camp adjacent to the rubble of the landmark Hotel Montana.
They sleep out in the open, with Gonzalez and her friend. They take short naps to re-energize. Then they go back in to search.
“We told her we won’t leave. We will stay by her side,” Mendez says. He has a grandchild the same age as Mateo.
Each day, Mendez pulls things from the place that Gonzalez called home: a stuffed animal, her husband’s computer, a piece of carpet. It helps him to know what room of the apartment his crew has entered.
Mendez is convinced father and son may be alive. He knows well the science of rescue after doing it for a quarter century.
“There is no smell,” he says.
But it’s Mendez’s compassion that guides him through the ordeal. He believes in the power of love. The strong bonds between a man and his child, trapped together. That link, he says, is enough to sustain them.
Even now, he says, people are coming out alive. On Wednesday, French rescuers pulled a 16-year-old girl from the rubble.
After a killer earthquake struck his hometown of Mexico City in 1985, Mendez, 46, felt a need to return the humanitarian gestures extended to his own people. He joined a team called the Topos or moles, named so because the rescuers wriggle through the deepest darkest corners in search of life.
He volunteered to rush to disasters: to Indonesian quakes, five times; to Latin American countries; to Iran, Turkey, India and Egypt; to New Orleans, Louisiana, after Hurricane Katrina and to New York after the 2001 terror attacks.
Haiti, he says, is one of the worst situations he has seen. “People are very, very poor here,” he says. Much of the infrastructure and construction was so shoddy. This was the first time government officials paid for his flight, Mendez says. Usually, he finds his own way. And that has left him penniless and jobless.
“Who will hire this old man now?” he asks. “People tell me I am mad.”
He says he does it because he loves to help people. “It’s worth it to find one person alive.”
Behind him, the incessant sound of a jackhammer deafens the ear. Above him, the roar of jets taking off from the airport. But it’s below where Mendez belongs.
Time is ticking.
Sometimes, in the darkness, when he is crawling like a mole, the earth trembles.
“Replica! Replica!” some of his men shout. There is always the fear that whatever is left standing will tumble in the many aftershocks this city has felt.
“We laugh,” he says. “We don’t scream like ladies. There is nothing you can do inside. You only die once. It would be an honor to die in the rubble.”
From other people, the statement might seem trite. But Mendez’s eyes make you believe. He is called Chino because people say he looks Chinese. He says he has the look of a fierce Mexican Indian.
After so many days, Mendez is running on two hours sleep — and hope. He keeps moving, deeper into Gonzalez’s apartment.
In search of smell. In search of the slightest sound. Of an infant’s whimper, a man’s weak cry for help.
Day and night. There is no difference down there.