PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti – An hour before the earthquake struck, 19-year-old Britney Gengel phoned her mother in Massachusetts, bursting with joy: She had found her calling on a college trip to help orphans in Haiti.
Now, as recovery crews continue to scour the collapsed Hotel Montana where Britney and 14 other Americans are believed buried in the rubble, Len and Cherylann Gengel are waiting with dread for another call — this time confirming their daughter's fate.
"It is a living hell on Earth to be in this limbo," Len Gengel said.
Gengel's daughter and three other students from Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla., are believed to have been trapped inside the Montana when the Jan. 12 quake struck, turning the six-story landmark into a tangle of broken concrete in the flash of an eye. Some 100 people are believed buried there.
The U.S. is pursuing the cases of about 4,000 Americans unaccounted for in Haiti, according to State Department spokesman Noel Clay. He said that number could drop dramatically because many are Haitians with U.S. citizenship who travel frequently between the two countries and are more difficult to track. So far, the U.S. has confirmed 79 American deaths.
"The departments of state, defense and health and human services are working together to recover, identify and repatriate remains of American citizens in the absence of functioning local mortuaries and commercial flights out of Haiti," said David Searby, a spokesman at the U.S. Embassy.
The Hotel Montana attracted an international clientele of tourists, aid workers and diplomats with its sweeping views from the hills above Port-au-Prince. None of the capital's ruins has been more thoroughly searched. Crews from the U.S., Brazil, France, Mexico, Canada and Haiti have all combed the debris, which pancaked so dramatically that the roofline comes within inches of the ground.
U.S. Army Col. Norberto Cintron, who is in charge of the recovery effort, said it will continue until workers find and identify the remains of all who were lost there. He expects it to take six to eight weeks.
"My instructions are to try to find everyone that was in this building," Cintron said. "We want to make sure we do this in a humane, dignified way, especially for the families."
It's a slow process: spray the mass of broken concrete and twisted metal beams to clear the dust that covers everything, including bodies. If there are none, signal a frontloader to lift the debris. If there is the smell of death, work carefully with jackhammers and other tools to search for and extricate the body.
A team from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is there to identify remains pulled from the hotel, and American soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division provide security. Inside the hotel gates, Cintron said 60 to 80 workers from outfits including the Army Corps of Engineers are working on recovering bodies.
At the Hotel Montana, about 21 people were pulled out alive and, so far, 28 bodies have been recovered, according to Cintron. It is the site where perhaps the largest number of Americans has yet to be recovered.
The engraved wedding ring on the finger of one smashed body pulled out last week helped workers identify her as Sandra Liliana Rivero Gonzalez, a Colombian manager for Delta Airlines. Two other bodies removed on Sunday, a man and a woman, were crushed beyond recognition and put into body bags to be taken away for identification from dental and other medical records.
The families of those victims are the lucky ones amid unspeakable horrors. Bulldozers and frontloaders clearing the mini-mountains of debris that were once downtown Port-au-Prince likely are carrying away human remains. Haiti's government says more than 115,000 bodies have been recovered — most dumped unceremoniously in mass graves outside the capital at Titanyen.
Despite the overwhelming scale of the catastrophe, the Haitian official in charge of planning reconstruction, Patrick Delatour, said the government has no issue with Americans dedicating so many resources to the Montana.
"The Haitian government is not in any position to assign value to those efforts of independent agencies," he said.
U.S. citizens who survived the quake were still being evacuated from Haiti: On Friday, three planes carrying 147 evacuees arrived in South Carolina, one of three states designated as repatriation sites. None of those on the Friday flights required hospitalization, although some were checked by doctors, said state Emergency Management Division official Derrec Becker. The evacuees made connecting flights or rented cars to complete their journeys home, Becker said.
In the days after the quake, which killed an estimated 150,000 to 200,000 people, relatives of the Americans missing at the Montana angrily implored the U.S. government to do more to find their loved ones. Some believe their campaign led to a stepped-up recovery effort.
"I just don't think the State Department had their act together. They do now. I think it took pressure from family members and congressmen," said Sally Baldwin, of Fort Worth, Texas. Her son Brendan Beck, a 35-year-old civil engineer, was doing development work in Haiti and is believed lost in the Montana.
Len Gengel said he took comfort from seeing the recovery effort firsthand during a Jan. 23 visit. In a tearful meeting, Cintron pledged to find Britney, who had arrived in Haiti the day before the quake.
"Col. Cintron showed me a picture of his two daughters and cried in my arms, promising — promising me he would bring our girls home," said Gengel, a builder from Rutland, Mass.
A rescue worker who searched the rubble of Britney's hotel room told her father it was empty. He said Britney's body would likely be found in a hallway because people run to escape when earthquakes strike. Besides Britney and her classmates, two Lynn University faculty members are also missing.
Survivors said the hotel's sudden collapse left them only a few seconds to escape.
Hotel employee Laurene Leger was sitting at a desk, planning ahead for Valentine's Day events and the opening of a new bar, when she heard rumbles and felt the earth agitating. She yelled to two colleagues to run, grabbing the hand of one to urge her along as they fled through the business center and the lobby. By then it was over.
"It couldn't have been more than five seconds, seven. We turned back and all the top stories had crashed into the ground floor," she said.
Gengel takes some consolation from the joy that came through in the last call from his daughter. He said Britney signed up for the week-long mission with the aid group Food for the Poor because she wanted to help the less fortunate, and Haiti is the "poorest of the poor."
Even though she did not speak Creole, she told her mother that communicating with the orphans was not difficult: "You just do. You just do."
"She said she found her calling and that she was going to come back filled with happiness," Len Gengel said. "She was happy."