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Loved ones recall Ben Larson's last day in Haiti

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Larsons a tree
Left to right, Elly McHan, Renee Splichal Larson, Jonathan Larson, and Ben Larson. Ben Larson was killed in a collapsed orphanage in the Haiti earthquake that struck on January 12, 2010. The Iowa seminarian was the son of two Duluth pastors.
Courtesy of the Larson family

Benjamin Larson's last day alive began in the slums of Port-au-Prince, helping a nurse care for people in need. 

He ate a late lunch at a fancy Chinese restaurant with his wife, Renee, and cousin Jonathan -- and they laughed later, recalling how dirty they were compared to the Chinese diplomats sitting nearby.

The three seminarians walked back to their hillside guest house, which was in the same building that provided a home for 20 Haitian boys rescued from slavery. Soon after they arrived, it was time for their before-dinner routine -- playing cards.

They were sitting at a table on the building's fourth floor, when the earth began to shake. The ceiling fell and concrete walls caved in. Renee Splichal Larson and Jonathan Larson made it out alive.

Large pieces of concrete fell on Ben Larson. It was too much for his body to handle, and he died in the earthquake that ended up claiming the lives of some 200,000 people. 

Two days after burying Ben in an Iowa cemetery, Renee and Jonathan shared their story with MPR's Tom Crann, before they headed back to Wartburg Theological Seminary in Dubuque, Iowa, where they hope to soon become Lutheran pastors. 

'WE'RE GOING TO DIE'

Ben and Renee Larson
Ben Larson and Renee Splichal Larson. Ben was killed in the Haiti earthquake that struck on January 12, 2010. His wife, Renee, escaped the collapsed building.
Courtesy of the family

The St. Joseph's Home for Boys shook above and below them. Renee and Jonathan placed themselves between two overhead lights they were afraid might fall. Renee looked around for a doorway but found none -- it was an open room. 

She looked for Ben. He was steadying himself on a pillar in the middle of the open space, about 10-15 feet away from where she and Jonathan were standing. 

"That's smart," Renee thought as she looked at her husband.

But then large pieces of concrete began to fall. It became loud. The concrete was falling on top of Ben's head.

"He wasn't moving, and his eyes were closed," Renee said. 

She yelled for him, but soon realized he wasn't going to move.

Collapsed building in Haiti
A view of the collapsed St. Joseph's Home for Boys in which Ben Larson was killed when an earthquake struck Haiti on January, 12 2010.
Courtesy of the Larson family

"So I started running for him, to grab him and pull him to where Jonathan and I were," she said.

Right then, the two floors above them collapsed. The ceiling collapsed, and Renee and Jonathan could no longer see Ben. 

"I just remember looking up and just thinking, 'This is it. We're going to die,'" Renee said.

Everything went black. The sound of crashing walls continued. 

When the shaking let up, Renee and Jonathan found each other in a space surrounded by collapsed walls. The air was filled with dust. They were alive, but they were trapped.

Car horns blared, and people screamed. They called out for Ben but heard no response.

'HE WAS SINGING'

Renee and Jonathan eventually found a small hole where light was coming in. They were able to push away enough rubble to get out, and they immediately searched for Ben.

They were on the roof when the aftershocks started. Renee knelt to steady herself, knowing the rest of the building could collapse at any moment.

"I didn't care if I died, because I wanted to be with Ben," she said.

The shaking stopped again, and a man who had been on the same floor with Ben, Renee and Jonathan called out: He had heard Ben's voice from the same hole Renee and Jonathan had crawled through.

They ran to the hole.

"Don't go in there! Don't go in there!" others yelled from the other side of the collapsed building.

Renee didn't care.

"I stuck my head in the hole, and I heard Ben," she said. "He was singing."

The tune was from the hymn, "Where Love and Charity Prevail," but Renee is pretty sure he was making up the words. 

Renee yelled for him: She and Jon were OK. She loved him. And keep singing!

She heard Ben sing "God's peace to us we pray." Then the singing stopped.

"I knew I couldn't get to him," Renee said.

LEAVING HAITI

The hillside was dangerous because of the threat of aftershocks. Jonathan and Renee were forced to leave the St. Joseph's Home. 

  They spent the night in an abandoned lot with dozens of Haitians. Even though many of them had lost their own loved ones, they offered to help Renee and Jonathan.

Ben Larson
Members of the congregation of First Lutheran Church in Duluth, Minn. light candles Thursday Jan. 14, 2010 in prayer for the victims of the Haiti earthquake. Ben Larson, the son April Ulring Larson who is the pastor of First Lutheran Church, is believed to have been killed as a result of the earthquake in Haiti on Tuesday.
AP Photo/Duluth News Tribune, Clint Austin

"They carried us in our deep darkness," Jonathan said.

In the morning, Jonathan and Renee went back up the hill to look for Ben again. They didn't find him, so they made their way down to the city and to the U.S. embassy.

There, they met Lori Pawar and other members of a medical team from a New Jersey Presbyterian church. The group had arrived in Haiti a day before the earthquake to run a medical clinic, but they ended up at the embassy helping the injured.

Renee walked in from the embassy's courtyard area. She was looking for something.

"I said, 'Can I help you?' And she said that they wouldn't let her get to her husband. Then, she just started to fall apart," Pawar said.

Pawar embraced her, then she listened to the whole story. 

Renee used Pawar's iPhone to send text messages to the Rev. Rafael Malpica Padilla in Chicago. Padilla, executive director of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America's Global Mission, learned Ben was underneath two floors that had collapsed and that there was no chance he had survived.

Renee told him she wanted to go back and find Ben's body. Padilla, Pawar and the others gathered at the embassy convinced her that it was too dangerous, and that she needed to evacuate Haiti along with all the other Americans.

"You have to do this," Padilla wrote in a text message. 

"She didn't want to leave Ben behind, but she had to," Padilla recalled later.

FINDING BEN

Padilla sent a member of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America's Global Mission to Haiti to see if Ben's body could be recovered. Louis Dorvilier was able to hire a group of Haitians for the search.

"We knew that there were no other people trapped there, and Renee was able to give the exact location," Padilla said.

After three days using sledgehammers and chisels to clear away the rubble, they found Ben's body.

Candles were lit as the search crew brought out Ben's body. It was sent to the U.S. embassy, and then to the United States.

It's been only two days since she buried her husband, but Renee said she and Jonathan both hope to go back to Haiti within a year.

"I want to see people face to face, to say thank you," she said. "What's so remarkable about this story (is that) in the midst of this tragedy, there were many miracles. Not only our own lives, but so many miracles."