|ESPN.com: E:60 -- The Dividing Line|
"E:60" tells the story of the Haitian under-17 girls' team, from the welcoming arms of the Dominican Republic and Panama for training, then Costa Rica for the CONCACAF tournament and back home to Haiti. The future is uncertain, and the young women wonder what will happen to them. Watch "E:60" Tuesday at 7 p.m. ET on ESPN.
The man who lived stands before the entrails of his office. He's confronted by evidence of the thing he now knows in his bones: The line between living and dying is thin, a few seconds making all the difference, a capricious reality that has little to do with faith or good works. The Haitian Football Federation headquarters looks like it got killed in a slaughterhouse. A three-story building pancaked into a story of rubble. Ripped sheets of tin rising at morbid angles. Tangles of iron rebar turned to balls of spaghetti. Femurs of concrete snapped in half. Some bricks came out in pillars, 8x2, and others came out one by one, gathering like pools of blood. The everyday accouterments of office life disemboweled: hollow hard drives the innards of printers, red and green and blue wires hanging from the back splintered desks. The man who lived spots his office chair amid the waste; it's just brown stuffing now, shapeless. Mostly, he sees faces. Thirty-seven people died here, including one of his best friends, who now rests in an anonymous grave. Three of the dead are buried on the side of the lot beneath a tree. Thirty-three remain beneath the rubble, lost forever. He thinks of them, trapped, their last hours filled with terror, and he thinks of those who escaped, standing outside this building, helpless. "We heard them, but we couldn't do anything," he says. "They were banging. One of them banged for three days." Two men named Yves
On the day of the earthquake, Yves Jean-Bart, president of the Haitian Football Federation, arrived for a meeting late, as usual. The man rarely made it to anything on time, running from place to place, juggling. He was a doctor in real life, but his passion was soccer. Later, his son would say they always believed he would die without the game. His old friend Yves Labaze waited on him, as usual. Labaze didn't live on Haitian Time. He demanded punctuality. It was his job to wake up the players during training, banging on doors before sunrise, yelling, "Soldiers don't sleep." If he got to the field for practice before them, they did push-ups. He ran a tight ship. Soccer came first. Before his wife and two daughters in the States, whom he rarely saw because of the game. Before his girlfriend and young son in Haiti, who both knew they came second. Sometimes, Magdala Pierre felt like he cheated on her with his job. Just two months earlier, when the under-17 women's team qualified for the CONCACAF tournament, she watched, with longing and jealousy, as he ignored her and sang songs with the players. The team came first. Always. Still, she tried. Just before the meeting, she stopped by the federation office to drop off something. "Can I wait for you?" she asked. "We can go home together." "No, no. I'll come later." Then he hurried away. Labaze used to coach -- one of only two people to qualify a Haitian team for a World Cup -- but now he was the manager of all the women's teams. Today, they had to pick the U-17 final roster for the upcoming tournament; another trip to a World Cup was on the line. Labaze carried a list with him. The president took his seat at the round conference table, his back to the door. Labaze sat down on his right. They shared a meal of pork and rice and beans. They told a few stories; the two men had been friends for decades, starting at the lowest levels of Haitian soccer, rising together to the top. Pictures of women's teams covered the walls. A rolling blackout cut the power. Light came from the windows. Labaze checked the time. He had another meeting an hour away in his hometown of Leogane, and then he needed to check in with the workmen building his new home. It was about 3 p.m. At 4:53, consequences would saddle even the most mundane decisions. There would be many reasons some people lived and others died, tiny acts of fate, an invisible hand moving this person into danger, or that person out. Lifelong habits spared or condemned. Tardiness, for instance -- such a silly reason to die. The hands on the clock moved. The sun inched across the sky. Minutes slipped away. Labaze stood up. "It's time for me to leave," he said. "No," somebody told him. "We're not finished yet." "That's the list," Labaze said. "If you want to add somebody, add somebody. It's time for me to leave." Who's No. 1 -- work or family?
This internal tug-of-war -- his personal life versus his soccer obligations -- had defined most of Labaze's 53 years. He often felt torn. Most often, his struggle resided in a single question: Work or family? It was a one-sided battle: He always chose soccer. Even the languages he learned were those of countries where people excelled at the game; he could speak Portuguese, Italian, English, French and Spanish. All his children received soccer-related names. His reputation spread, not only as an obsessive student of the game, but as a calming force, slow to anger, a peacemaker. Handling the conflict inside himself must have taught him how to handle conflict between others. Labaze was the only one who worked for both the Football Federation and the Haitian Ministry of Sport, two organizations that got along like the Jets and the Sharks. Rival teams let him watch their practices. Everyone trusted Labaze. He worked hard to earn this trust. He traded everything for it. In the late-1980s, Labaze's wife, Marie Mithe Maignan, moved to the United States to start a new life. Labaze stayed in Haiti, waiting for his wife to send for their daughters, Belge and Gophi, and coaching his team. Two years later, he drove his little girls to the airport. He didn't tell them where they were going. They didn't understand the tears streaming down his face as he put them on a plane with a cousin. It was the only time they'd ever see him cry. The jet taxied down the runway, taking off, bound for JFK International Airport and a better future. Labaze stayed behind. He had a team to coach. Work to do. He and his wife divorced.
He'd lost his family to soccer. A decade ago, he met girlfriend Pierre; they double-dated with a coach who went out with her cousin. She soon learned that no plan was safe from work. Even if a date was his idea, he'd cancel it at the last minute. After a while, she stopped making plans. Weekends? Soccer. Holidays? Soccer. Birthdays, anniversaries? Soccer. If they went anywhere, it was spur of the moment. Soon, they had a son. Pierre would tell Labaze often: "You give all this time to these girls but you also have a little boy here who needs you as a dad. You need to be here." But he rarely was. The team needed him. The federation needed him. He'd chosen work over family so many times, he saw the people from work as family. The lines between finally disappeared. His myopia led to success. In 2007, he coached the under-17 men's team to the World Cup in South Korea. But he learned something about a burning love. Sometimes, the thing you love doesn't love you back. In the end, you're lucky if it only breaks your heart. The government made him many promises and broke them all. It did not support his team. He paid for their practice field out of his own pocket the price of the work became the nation's nickname for his team.
Something changed inside Labaze. He talked of quitting soccer. He said so to friends. He said so in interviews: "I'm bitter, because of the attitude of so many people who seek to undermine the team. Lately, I often have the idea to give it all up and do something else. Sometimes I ask myself whether after the World Cup I won't stop talking about soccer altogether."
The team went to Korea. Outgunned, it did not make it past the first round. Labaze seemed to drift. Why did I devote my life to this game? For the players? For myself? Was it because I wanted something to live after me? A monument to my existence? Did I make a colossal mistake?
He visited his family in New York. He saw his teenage daughters. He and his wife reconnected and decided to remarry. They did it in a Nyack, N.Y., church, with the girls as bridesmaids. The man walking down the aisle was a portrait of regret, grasping at a past he'd given up years before.
But now he was making things right. Finally, he was going to reclaim the life he'd lost. First, he told his wife, he had to go back to Haiti. He wouldn't stay long. He promised. The wedding was three years ago. He hasn't been back.
Four steps separating life and death
Labaze and the president ate cookies. The meeting was almost over. A phone call took care of Labaze's other appointments. He got a friend to go make an appearance for him at one, and his own home could wait. A trainer brought a sick player into the room for the president to examine. Labaze told him, "You have to do something. We can't lose him." That's when it began. They heard and felt it at the same time. It sounded like people were jumping up and down on the second floor. Everyone looked up. "Is someone fighting?" one person asked. The noise got louder, gaining speed and rhythm, until it sounded like an enormous helicopter hovering just overhead. A jackhammer. The building swayed, side to side. Wood beams groaned and struggled to hold. "It's an earthquake!" the president shouted. "Everybody out!" He jumped up and did a 180, headed for the door. Labaze followed. In the hall, the two men had to decide: right toward the front door or left toward the back. The president turned left. Labaze followed. Behind them, inside the room, the debris cloud blocking the sun, the other four men and women dropped to the floor, holding hands, praying in the dark: JesusJesusJesusJesus. The president and Labaze ran, rounding the corner, trying to get to the open door before the building collapsed on top of them. They could almost touch freedom. Four good strides to the door, then four more steps down the concrete stairs. A few seconds separating life and death. In a blink, the earthquake had exposed everything: the fallacy of time, memory, choices, faith. All illusions were wiped away and the only thing left, the one true thing in the universe, was four steps to the door, four steps down the stairs. They could see outside, the rectangle of light, the swimming pool in the backyard. Grit and dust filling their lungs, they raced toward the open door, just a few seconds apart. They ran toward the light. Like a rock Afterward, as everybody began to appreciate how fragile life could be, an equal and opposite reaction also happened: Insignificant moments took on great significance. A quick cup of coffee and a slice of toast could become The Last Meal. That morning, the president had headed off to the gym. As he left the house, he waved to his wife, who was talking on the phone to their son in Boston. It was the last time they saw each other before the earthquake. His routine -- gym, then sauna, then back into street clothes -- took him from home to the office. For the past 10 years, he'd been president. Family and coworkers saw him as a rock. He took care of business. When he visited his children in America, he brought gifts and picked up dinner bills. Over and over again, his children asked if they could put in his name for permanent residency in the United States. Over and over, he told them no. His home is in Haiti. His home is here, in this building, with these people, working on a game they love. The death throes of a building The building sways. The president slips and falls on the stairs, bricks and pieces of concrete dropping all around him, like shells pocking an invasion beach. One lands on his right hand, crushing the tips of the ring and middle fingers. The wound bleeds. A brick lands on his back, another on his shoulder. This is how he'll die, a few feet from safety, crushed by the building he ruled. But his legs still work. He feels them, feels strength remaining, so he struggles to his feet. He runs through the open door, finally outside. Labaze follows, also makes it out the door. They are almost clear. Suddenly, just behind them, the building collapses. Wood snaps. Falling bricks click like giant poker chips. Iron groans and gives, concrete comes out in midwall patches, then entire walls at a time. The roof leans and slides off the back. A man on the roof dives into the swimming pool. There is no water. From outside, the collapse sounds like one big noise. But up close the subtleties are audible, the dying breaths of a building. Waves of dust and debris roll out from the wreckage. The people watching close their eyes, as microscopic razors fly toward them. They try to look but cannot. The noise continues for a good 10 or 15 seconds, and then there is quiet. Well, not quiet, exactly. The screams of the dying and the pleas of the trapped pierce the air. A federation employee standing outside runs toward the back of the building, his voice joining with others who made it out, a chorus of people calling names, over and over again. "President?" "Labaze?" "President?" "Labaze?"
On the verge of a huge life change? There were signs that Labaze finally understood he didn't need to choose. He could have work and family. Though he never went back to live with his wife -- seduced by the game and its siren call of one more team, one more tournament -- he did begin building a home, one big enough for people to stay with him in Haiti. He chose a spot in Leogane, where he was born, and watched with pride as the building rose up from the ground. After 30 years with the Ministry of Sports, he put in for retirement. Friends couldn't believe it. Labaze retiring? Both his daughters were graduating from college in May; he planned to travel to America and spend several months there. Of course, not everything pointed to a new Labaze. For one thing, he had remarried and then re-abandoned his wife, and then he didn't break off his relationship with Pierre. For another, he canceled a trip to visit the States in December, saying he didn't want to pay for two expensive trips. The likely truth? The under-17 girls' team had qualified for a tournament the month before, and he couldn't break away. One more tournament. One more team. After the World Cup run ended, then he could reclaim the life he'd given up. "After 30 years," says Charleus Gilbert, the best man at Labaze's wedding, "he was really thinking of leaving." Labaze told his girls about the house. Each of them would have a bedroom. They tried to explain they wouldn't be moving to Haiti, and a simple guest room would be fine, but he wouldn't listen. For his wife, he prepared the second floor. All he could talk or think about was the home. Friday at the soccer training facility was payday. Every Friday morning, Labaze would start bugging the manager: "When are you giving us the money? You know I need the money to finish my house." The night before the earthquake, Labaze returned a coaching book to his longtime friend and colleague Carlo Marcelin. The men sat and talked awhile. It didn't take long for the conversation to turn to Labaze's dream. That day, he'd gotten the loan to complete construction. "My kids are graduating in May," he told his friend, "and I'm excited, because I'm going to finish the house so they can come back and see." "I have money! Save me!"
The president is a half-dozen strides away, on the far side of the swimming pool patio, when the building collapses. The air is thick with khaki-colored dust. The man lands in the swimming pool with a thud, and the president climbs down to give first aid. He thinks aftershocks are coming, so he rushes around the side of the building, searching for survivors, trying to get them clear. Eighteen people made it out. Thirty-seven did not. He looks for Labaze. Where's Labaze? He can't find him. Maybe Labaze is already running to the stadium; the girls were practicing when the earthquake hit, and it would be just like Labaze to think first of the team. Two hours later, the president and some others return to the federation building to look for survivors. When they arrive, they hear the voices, trapped in pockets of clear space, and under piles of rubble. "Don't move. When you move, it hurts." "I'm alive!" "I have money! Save me!" And then they hear another voice calling out from the back of the building. It's Labaze. Calling for help He lies prone on the steps, covered by a pile of debris, his hands a yard or two from freedom. They can't see him, but his voice is strong and clear. "I'm bleeding." Labaze took a team to the World Cup once. He gave up everything for soccer. Now? "There is something on top of me." The crowd backs up, scared of aftershocks, looking at neighboring buildings and doing geometry. They need equipment to pull the concrete and steel off Labaze. They have no equipment. All they can do is listen. "Don't let me die like this," he pleads. His friends are helpless. "Is this how you're going to let me die?" Someone else in the rubble tries to calm him. "Hold your strength," the man tells him. "They're going to come get us." Soon, the people outside can no longer hear his cries. Those trapped inside can. Hours pass. "Please help me." His voice falls lower and lower, until it's barely a whisper. "I have something on my back." Only those close to him can hear at the end. "I'm not dead. Help me." Then no one can hear him at all.
Two and a half months later, Labaze's sister, Gabrielle, returns to the Cimetiere de Leogane for the first time since the earthquake. She finds the mound of quick-set cement and, nearby, the grave digger, smiling too big and making excuses. As a cosmic insult, laid out in front of her brother's tomb is an open casket, left by grave robbers or a gravedigger who needed the space. The stranger's skull rests on his brown suit, his belt is cinched tight and a single flower sits on his knee. Two stray goats walk over the body, baaing as they cross cloth and bone. Gabrielle loses it. She doesn't understand why someone who did so much for his country can be abandoned here, in an anonymous grave, not even worth a sincere effort from the stone-eyed grave digger. "Why isn't it finished?" she screams. More excuses, followed by more anger. A crowd gathers. They ask questions. Gabrielle and Willy Cetoute, Labaze's cousin, tell them the story of what happened after the building fell down. They waited a day, then another, hoping he'd make it out. A fellow coach called and delivered the news: Labaze was dead. Gabrielle bought wood and cement. She gathered sheets and caught a ride into Port-au-Prince. Cetoute went with her. They stopped at the federation building and stepped inside the gate. "He's in the back." They walked around and saw the pool and the piles of brick and steel. No one would help them dig the body from the rubble. They went to the street and flagged down a federation bus. "We need help," Gabrielle said.
"No," she remembers someone saying. "We can't help you. That's none of our business."
So Gabrielle and Cetoute paid strangers off the street and, from the wreckage of the place he'd chosen again and again over his family, his family dug out his remains. The soccer federation barely existed. The players had scattered, disappeared into the ether. The federation archives, the carefully collected record of Labaze's small and large successes, were lost in the rubble. There was something else, hidden by the broken rock and bent steel, a feeling muffled by the dominant emotions of pain and loss: irony. Labaze had traded everything for work and in the end, not only did his job kill him, his office literally landed on his head, snuffing out his life and, for kicks, destroying the records of everything he'd accomplished. It's like none of it ever happened, and here, at the end, the only person who cared enough to claim his body, battered and mangled by the falling rock, was his sister. Gabrielle recognized his black boots. They placed the body on a door and covered it with a sheet. They slid the door into the back of a pickup truck, and Gabrielle followed in another cab. She couldn't ride with the body. The smell. Cetoute carried the body to the cemetery. It was heavy. He slipped and fell. Some players from the local club Cavaly de Leogane, where Labaze was the head coach, saw Cetoute struggling. They never even moved. He asked why they were not helping. "Make it quick," they told him. "Get rid of this " They used a Creole word. It means garbage. This happened two and a half months ago. To Gabrielle and Cetoute, it seems like one long night. Cetoute stretches prone in the cemetery, showing how they found Labaze. He can't understand. One man lived. Another man died. Why? "All of them were in the same room," he says, standing a few feet from the grave. "The president came out and just had a scratch." A bad case of survivor's guilt
The president looks at the concrete steps and the door hanging in the air. It's black metal, with lots of squares of glass, most of them broken out. Shards shimmer in the afternoon sun. "That's the door," he says. He squeezes a tennis ball, partly because doctors told him it would help, partly because it's become a nervous tic in the past few months. What is he supposed to do about this scene? Create a park to memorialize Labaze's death? Create a shiny new federation building to honor Labaze's life? Those who died are being forgotten, and the living are left to walk around helpless, asking over and over again: What do I do now? There's the incongruous computer monitor at the top of the steps, then the piles of iron and brick, the electrical outlet dangling by a naked wire, the box of Christmas decorations, the soccer shoe pointed toward safety, and, finally, a single leaf resting on the spot where his friend lost his life. "That's exactly where he died," the president says, squeezing the ball. The night of the earthquake, after he and his wife had made it out of the wrecked city, the questions came fast. Why didn't I die? Is it because of something I did? Something I didn't do? What do I owe? How should I change my life?
Squeeze. Why am I alive? Why is Labaze dead?
Squeeze. After the earthquake, he went to the United States to visit his son in Boston. Even there, he did not want to sleep indoors. His own future is uncertain. Will he stay in Haiti? What will he do? Will anything be the same again? "Never," he says. "It's never going to be like before." Squeeze. Heights scare him now. He gave a news conference recently on the sixth floor of a building in Port-au-Prince and couldn't focus. Night and day, the fractured images of the earthquake come back to him: the shaking, the noise, the running, the light, the falling bricks and the blood and the last push to safety, and then the cries of the people trapped inside. The cries of his friend. He looks again at the bottom of the stairs. Labaze made it out of the building. He made it through the door. Just a few more feet, and they'd be here together, telling stories, making plans for a team. Two men named Yves left a room seconds apart. One lived and one died. Desolation Row
The house is padlocked. His name and phone number are scrawled on the front in grease pencil. Labaze. 3568-6616. A jagged crack runs down the wall, through the "e." The second story, the one he built for his wife, fell into the front yard. Somehow, his oldest daughter can manage a thin smile at the metaphor. There are playing cards spread throughout the crushed cinderblocks. The inside is spare. Just a desk and a bed. The desk is full of books about soccer and notebooks with detailed practice plans that will never be used. The home is unfinished. The door frames haven't been stained. That's all that's left of a life. "He died broke," says Gilbert, his best man. In his final moments, did Labaze look back on his choices? If he had it to do over again, would he do it all the same? Would he still choose work? "He died with a lot of regrets," fellow coach Marcelin says. Standing here is painful for Gabrielle and Cetoute. This home was the manifestation of a new dream, and now it stands as a constant reminder that the dream died with him. His name fades a little more every day. Everyone is trying to forget the earthquake, and that means forgetting those who died, too. Bulldozers pushed bodies into mass graves a thousand at a time. The nation wants to move on, and those close to Labaze shake with anger when they think how little has been done to honor his memory. One afternoon at the training ranch, Gilbert takes out a small envelope from his pocket; inside are two photos of Labaze. He wants to have them blown up and hung in a public place, so people will never forget. "If someone like Labaze, who went to the World Cup, died like nothing, what about me?" he asks. "If nobody is talking about Labaze, what about me? They could do something. He gave his whole life. He's a real soldier. He died with his rifle in his hands."
The under-17 team went to play in Costa Rica -- without him. The president met with FIFA leaders and made plans for the future -- without him. Even his local club in Leogane, Cavaly, moved on. A few weeks after the earthquake, Cetoute heard players from the club dismissing Labaze on the radio, saying, sure they'd lost a coach but they had a new one and the future would be great. They wouldn't help carry him to the grave, and they would not honor his memory. "For them," Cetoute says, "he had no value." The players didn't dislike Labaze. Their problem? They suffer from a new national sickness: unending emotional aftershock. So many people died. How do you grieve for everyone? You don't. Walls go up. Death loses its ability to shock, and it is far easier to grieve for no one. Families of the dead suffer even more. Gabrielle points toward the Cavaly training ground. "I don't want to see them again!" she screams. The bedroom is empty, too. There's dirty laundry in a pile. A half used tube of Aim toothpaste. Blue-and-white striped sheets cover the bed. Suits hang in the closet. A black one just came back from the cleaners. The olive suit is size 41. The green one is 40 regular. The neckties are tied, waiting for someone to slip them on. Past, present, future all lost
The man who died dedicated everything to soccer, and in return, he lost his wife, then his family, then his life and, finally, he lost his future, too. The man who died never got the good news. An hour and 53 minutes before the earthquake, 26-year-old Belge Labaze went to see her doctor in Albany, N.Y. The nurse gave her a pregnancy test. It was positive. She wasn't married, and she didn't know how she'd tell her mom. First, she'd tell her dad. He'd make everything OK. She drove home and when she got there, the father of the baby called. He told her to call her dad right away. She asked why. There's an earthquake in Haiti, he told her. She dialed. The phone rang and rang. Her father did not return the call. She began to panic. It never took him more than 15 minutes to call her back. She called again. The phone rang and rang. Then her calls went to voice mail. Then the phone lines went down. Haiti was silent. Her dad died beneath the rubble and she never got to tell him he was going to be a grandfather. The baby boy is due on Sept. 12.
His middle name will be Yves.
Wright Thompson is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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