Haiti victim: 'I never thought I would get out'

MIAMI — Somewhere in the dust and blood of his own grave, blind violinist Romel Joseph began to play the strains of Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto.

Even with his left leg pinned in the rubble of his collapsed music school, he moved onto Brahms and then Mozart.

By the time he was pulled from the ruins of the New Victorian School 18 hours later, he had recited every concerto in his mind that he had ever performed during his renowned career.

“I never thought I would get out,” said Joseph, who has already undergone two surgeries at Miami’s Jackson Memorial Hospital to repair his shattered legs. “The earth just opened up.”

Despite his remarkable rescue after last week’s earthquake, the 50-year-old violinist — like so much of his homeland — must now confront wrenching losses.

His pregnant wife, Myslie, 26, perished in the disaster two floors below him. The school where he taught classical music to impoverished Haitians, in the Port-Au-Prince neighborhood of Turgeau near the National Palace, is destroyed.

Yet even in the heartache, Joseph said he came to a stark conclusion while lying in the rubble: He needs to rebuild his school and continue teaching children the beauty of classical music.

“As long as Haiti has children, you have a purpose of being there,” said the divorced father of two children who reside in Miami. “As long as there are kids there, they have to have a reasonable level of health and they have to have an education.”

He may not be able to join them. With two severe fractures in his left hand, the Juilliard graduate may not be able to play the violin again.

“Two of my fingers are fractured,” he said from his hospital bed Wednesday at Miami’s JMH. “At this time, the doctors don’t know.”

Remarkably, the school he founded burned to the ground precisely 10 years to the day of the earthquake — Jan. 12, 2000 — during a short circuit. Within 12 days, Joseph was teaching classes again.

Born in poverty in a northern village in Haiti, the middle of five children, Joseph — blind in one eye and barely able to see shadows in the other — was raised by nuns in a boarding school in Port-Au-Prince. There, he was first exposed to the string instrument that would become his life’s passion.

With the help of scholarships and a Fulbright grant, he went on to the University of Cincinnati and The Juilliard School, where he earned degrees in violin performance. By the time he trained with the Boston Symphony, he was married with two children to come.

Instead of launching his own musical career in the United States, he turned to help the poorest of the poor in Haiti.

“He could have recorded, he could have done so many things, but he wanted to go back,” said his daughter, Victoria, 22, a senior music major at the University of Miami.

‘‘He would always tell us, ‘You got to give back.’ ”

After opening his private, nonprofit school in 1991, partly as a way to safely teach his children during a violent period in Haiti, he began providing music and general education to grade-school children. Students are able to attend through scholarships and private funding.

It was while he was trapped in the twisted metal and concrete blocks — cramped, trembling and alone — that he said his life’s arc passed through his mind.

He thought of his daughter and son, Bradley, 17. He thought of his pregnant wife, whom he married in October. He thought of his students, who were out of the building when the quake struck. “That would have been a true disaster,” he said.

Joseph just as easily could have been with his wife when the concrete, five-story school was ripped into pieces. He had just left their apartment on the first floor when he walked to the third floor of the school to deliver a phone message to a friend. “I was on the balcony,” he said.

Suddenly, he was thrust over the side — the floors crashing on top of him and pinning him into what he now calls “a grave.”

“I didn’t know what happened,” he said. “I’m way down. I keep calling: ‘Can anyone hear me?’ I spent my first two hours trying to look for ways to get out. It was a war zone.”

His bed was the metal railing from the balcony, and he grabbed two rocks to make a pillow. At some point, he began to calm his breathing and decided to whisper a prayer.

“I’ve never been someone you would call religious,” he said. “I’m not a pastor, and I’m not a church person. But I just said, ‘Either I survive this and if I do, I want you to tell me what to do.’ ”

He said he began to reflect on “all the things that Jesus has done for me,” and in the passing hours, he said he was struck by what he called two commands: Rebuild the school and teach the children of Haiti.

He said he began to hear voices of people outside the rubble searching for him, including his friend from the third floor.

Joseph managed to stick one of his hands through an opening in the bricks and metal, and his friend held it. “He told me not to fall asleep,” he recalled. “They were chopping through the bricks and they wanted me to able to hear me.”

While he waited, he began to play the concertos in his mind — musical works in which a solo instrument, such as a violin, is accompanied by an orchestra.

Wearing a watch for the blind, he was able to gauge the hours.

“I would pray and then I (envisioned) having an orchestra with me and I was playing Mozart violin concerto. That’s 40 minutes. Then Brahms concerto. That’s about 40 minutes. I was totally immersing myself in my thoughts.”

Bleeding and battered, he was pulled out the day after the quake, his legs fractured with deep cuts.

Nails took chunks from his flesh.

A dual citizen of Haiti and the United States, he managed to get a hospital flight to Homestead on Friday and was whisked to JMH.

For days, dozens of friends and family members have been visiting.

His daughter, Victoria, 22, the UM music major, said her father is driven to rebuild, partly as a way to deal with the pain of his wife’s death.

“So far, he has had so many people in and out of his room, visiting him, and I don’t think he has really had time to (grieve),” she said. “That’s something that’s going to happen later.”

He’s now putting all his energies into Haiti, pressing his daughter to bring a computer to the hospital so he can start planning.