TAMPA — Memories of the mothers hurt the most: clutching lifeless babies, screaming at flattened homes with children inside.
That's when 13-year-old Daphne Jean fidgets, tears up and changes the subject.
Daphne and her father, Edrice Jean, returned Sunday from Haiti — physically unscathed from last week's earthquake but emotionally scarred by the terrifying things they saw and confusing feelings of guilt.
Edrice and Kettly Jean, natives of Haiti and now U.S. citizens, enrolled Daphne in an American school in Port-au-Prince because they preferred it to schools near their East Tampa home.
For three months, Edrice Jean operated a Haitian grocery store while his wife stayed with their other four children in Tampa. It worked out well.
Daphne had just come home from school. Edrice Jean was on the roof fixing the TV antenna. Daphne took a nap.
Suddenly, her TV crashed to her bed. She saw cracks in the walls and could hardly walk for the shaking. Her dad jumped from the roof, screaming for her to flee.
"Outside was gruesome," Daphne said. "People were yelling and screaming, saying it was the end of the world, yelling for Jesus."
The street was covered in rubble and bodies.
"It was like walking through a horror film," Daphne said. "Seeing mothers hugging their babies, but they were dead."
Daphne's father and uncle gathered what they could and headed to the woods. They made a tent of blankets and started a fire. They stayed there for days, riding out aftershocks and surviving on dried fish and rice.
They shooed away black widows and snakes. They heard stories of people jumping off cliffs after losing their families. They heard more screaming. "I didn't sleep," Daphne said.
Meanwhile, Daphne's mother was in Tampa wondering whether her husband and daughter were alive.
She called constantly, listening to the phone ring and sobbing. She watched the news in horror. She said she couldn't eat or sleep or walk.
"I cried, I prayed," Kettly Jean said. "Oh, my god, I kept crying."
Edrice Jean and Daphne got to the U.S. Embassy Thursday and flew out on a military plane early Sunday. They arrived in Tampa that afternoon.
News comes in trickles. Kettly Jean just learned that her cousin, who was seven months pregnant, died with her 2-year-old daughter when her home collapsed. Daphne hasn't heard from her friends, so she searches the crowds on TV news for familiar faces. So far, none.
She tries not to think too much about what she saw. She tries not to feel guilty for leaving. For living.
"It taught me a lot," Daphne said. "About how important life is."
Kim Wilmath can be reached at (813) 226-3386 or [email protected]