The day after the earthquake struck, Gene Schmidt sat at home watching the first footage of the devastation in Haiti. Image after image of stunned and frightened Haitians walking in shock through streets littered with buildings reduced to powder and chunks of concrete left him asking: “How can I help?”
A long time pilot and owner of a Baron, Gene contacted some of the bigger aviation nonprofits offering to help, only to learn that they had no plans at the time to organize relief flights. Then he heard that a small group called Bahamas Habitat had been in the air flying into Haiti just hours after the dust began to settle.
By the first weekend after the quake, Schmidt left the comfort of his home in Pensacola, Florida and stopped in Gainesville, FL to join up with his friend Sam Frasier. Within hours, Schmidt in his Baron and Frasier in his Bonanza were flying their first missions into Haiti. By that Monday Schmidt was a veteran, having flown into a number of smaller airports like Cap Haitien, Jeremie and Les Cayes dropping off critically needed supplies and bringing people out.
Gene couldn’t have known it at the time, but it would be the first of seven weekends in a row of flights from Florida to the Bahamas and then on to Haiti, during which he and his Baron would haul thousands of pounds of desperately needed medical equipment into small towns on the perimeter of the quake zone. The experience would change his life.
Recalling his most memorable mission, Schmidt tells of reuniting a young girl stranded in Haiti with her mother in the States, “While I was in Haiti my wife was being interviewed by a reporter from a local Pensacola TV station, and when I got home I got a call from a Haitian woman who is married to an American and lives in Pensacola. Her daughter had been in Port au Prince during the earthquake and was stuck there; the family had been split up or killed. The mother had lost touch with her daughter and wanted to know if I could go down and get her.”
As the story unfolded, Schmidt learned that even though the seven year old girl had a passport, she didn’t have a visa to get her into the United States. So he contacted the TV reporter and asked him to use his connections with a congressman to expedite a visa, but the reporter responded that it takes months even to get an emergency visa. Schmidt asked him to call the hysterical mother with the bad news.
The reporter then asked Schmidt if he could accompany him on a mission to “follow the trail” of the medical supplies being donated, so the two of them traveled to Les Cayes on a Saturday. There, two men approached them with a little girl in tow and said, ” This is Rosie, and you’re supposed to take her back to the States.” When they told the men that it wasn’t possible without a visa, the men said they were leaving Rosie at the airport to fend for herself.
Schmidt says, “We decided we would take her back to the States and hoped it would all work out when we got there. Dan Thomas, the reporter stayed in Les Cayes and I told him to get on the phone and call somebody, because later that evening I was going to be arriving at Customs in Fort Lauderdale with this little girl with no visa. He found a local Florida state representative, Ellyn Bogdanoff, and she met me at the airport at 10:30 at night, and we were able to talk the Customs officials into giving Rosie a two year “parole”.
“We were able to get her mother flown to Fort Lauderdale on Sunday morning and they were back in Pensacola by Sunday afternoon. Rosie, this beautiful little girl who spoke French but no English at all, is now in third grade in Pensacola and speaks English. And now she’s over at our house quite often.”
Looking back, Schmidt say that, “The most incredible thing that I saw was that this whole operation, the hundreds of thousands of pounds of supplies we delivered, the lives that were saved was essentially in the hands of Abraham McIntyre, Cameron King and Matt Hansen of Bahamas Habitat. It was amazing thing to see that these three young people put together such an impressive operation in such a short time.”
Gene Schmidt was honored months later in a ceremony at the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington where he received the Public Benefit Pilot Of The Year award by the National Aeronautic Association. Though proud he was chosen, he’s quick to point out that his honor symbolizes the efforts of the hundreds of pilots who responded, “There’s no question that there are hundreds, if not thousands of people who are alive today who would not be alive if it were not for all of the general aviation pilots from the U.S. that responded. It was an amazing thing.”