MONTREAL – Claude Cuillerier remembers being in a second-storey office at the United Nations police headquarters in Port-au-Prince when the floor suddenly collapsed, trapping colleagues in the rubble below.
Haiti’s devastating earthquake with a magnitude of 7.0 had just struck.
As the Montreal police sergeant and a colleague from Nigeria made it outside, they took in the chaos as well as the scope of the destruction.
“What it reminded me of was like in New York City after 9-11 with the huge white plumes of dust,” said Cuillerier, 51, who teaches at Quebec’s police academy.
But then adrenalin and his professional training kicked in and the 24-year veteran fetched a carjack to help rescuers free colleagues. Cuillerier himself went into the rubble, using his hands to rummage through concrete to help pull out survivors with the risk of further collapse imminent.
That selflessness resulted in Cuillerier and 13 of his colleagues being rewarded on Thursday with the RCMP Commissioner’s Commendation for Bravery for their life-saving efforts following the January 2010 earthquake. The third anniversary of the temblor is Saturday.
They were recognized for putting their own lives at risk to rescue people trapped in crumbling buildings, providing first-aid and security and escorting rescue teams.
The 14 men — 13 police officers from Ottawa, Montreal, Saguenay, Quebec provincial police and the RCMP and one member of the Canadian Forces — received the accolade from RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson.
Michel Martin, a retired Quebec provincial police inspector, was in charge of the Canadian contingent when the quake struck.
Speaking on Thursday, Martin said he wants to ensure no one ever forgets the people of Haiti as well as two fellow RCMP officers who died during the earthquake — Sgt. Mark Gallagher and Supt. Doug Coates.
Many were at police headquarters or in their residences in Port-au-Prince when the quake hit.
“Thankfully not everything crumbled,” Martin said. “And in the moments after the earthquake, Canadian police officers went into crumbling homes and buildings to save people.”
Martin said there are no words to describe the lengths to which his people went. He told them they can count themselves among a select group of people — those who risk their own lives to save others.
Many still harbour scars from what they went through. Cuillerier, who served twice in Haiti and loved his international experiences, says he won’t return to the Caribbean nation out of respect for his family.
“They lived through the earthquake from a distance and it took several hours to reach them,” Cuillerier said. “I promised them that I would not go back there again.”
Others still find it difficult to talk about what they lived through in the aftermath of the tragedy.
Serge Boulianne, a retired Montreal police detective who served 28 years on the force, had just left the building when the quake hit. He ran back inside to help locate survivors and help them escape. He also used a ladder to save many people who were trapped.
Boulianne recalled that after the quake, there was silence. “No dogs, no birds, no wind. nothing,” Boulianne said. Then the screams could be heard.
Boulianne spent about 20 days in Haiti after the quake. He was tasked with ferrying rescue teams from the airport to different sites where they could help. Difficult decisions had to be made on the ground.
“When you’re a police officer, you decide to help people, you don’t decide who lives and who dies,” Boulianne said. “But that was the most difficult thing to decide: those people we can help and those we weren’t able to help.”
Boulianne, who survived a cancer diagnosis at age 40 and the earthquake in his 50s, called it a career recently. He now builds homes for a living.
He sees himself as someone who lost friends in the earthquake and who did his job. But others are more deserving of recognition, he said.
“They recognized what we did (today) and I’m very appreciative of that,” Boulianne said.
“But I think the real heroes are the Haitian people.”
International Co-operation Minister Julian Fantino attended Thursday’s event but did not field questions from reporters. The former police officer said the individual acts of bravery and self-sacrifice distinguished the 14 men being honoured.
“Your willingness to make the ultimate sacrifice epitomizes all that is good and noble about policing and military service,” Fantino told the men and their families at RCMP headquarters in Montreal.
The minister has been under heavy fire in recent days for saying Canada would freeze aid for new projects in Haiti.
Fantino said last week he was disappointed by the lack of progress in the country and wanted to find a better way to help Haiti’s reconstruction.
Those comments earned him rebukes from the U.S. State Department and the United Nations this week.