In the dark hours since a massive earthquake shattered Haiti yesterday, the festive air has turned to dread at La Difference Restaurant on Blue Hill Avenue in Dorchester.
First, the wide-screen television that beams shows directly from the Caribbean nation to the dining room faded to gray. On the radio, an urgent voice speaking in French told of buildings reduced to rubble after a devastating 7.0 magnitude earthquake hit 10 miles west of the capital, Port-au-Prince.
Patrons and workers tried frantically to call family and friends in Haiti, but no one answered.
“I don’t know. I don’t know,” said Sanders Nicholas, a 23-year-old college student whose family lives near the National Palace. “I just want to know what’s going on.”
Haitians across Massachusetts huddled anxiously last night around televisions and radios and trolled the Internet, desperate for news of loved ones. Haitians are one of the largest immigrant groups in the state, with more than 43,000 clustered in Boston and other cities, including Malden, Brockton, and Somerville.
“Our thoughts and prayers are with the people of Haiti at this time of terrible tragedy,” Governor Deval Patrick said in a statement last night. “We stand strong with the Haitian community here in Massachusetts and will be reaching out over the course of the coming days to offer any assistance we can to them and their families.”
Many Haitian-Americans stay in close touch with their relatives in Haiti, and Massachusetts residents send more than $10 million to Haiti every year to help pay for food, schooling, medicine, and other costs.
“We are all calling each other, trying to find out who can get through,” said Pierre P. Joas, who hosts a Haitian television show in the area and whose elderly mother is in Haiti visiting relatives. “It’s a panic situation.”
His cousin, Jules Dorce, 42, of Mansfield, has a sister in Haiti.
“I spoke to my nephew in France who tried to reach my sister, but was not able,” Dorce said. “I have a friend in Miami who just called. They heard nothing.”
With phone networks disrupted in Haiti, those who got through by cellphone were soon disconnected. And with power outages widespread, once cellphone batteries died, there was no way to charge them.
As the local Haitian community awaited word, Raymond Joseph, the Haitian ambassador to the United States in Washington, urged all Haitians to be strong.
“The only thing I can say is that the Haitian people are a really courageous people, and in the past, when we’ve been hit hard, we come back fighting,” Joseph said in a telephone interview. “With the help of everyone, we’ll live through this.”
David Manzo, president of Cotting School in Lexington - which has a sister school called Wings of Hope in Fermathe, about 45 miles south of Port au Prince - said he received word briefly by cellphone late last night that the school’s several dozen students were safe. But the school was severely damaged, the children had nowhere to sleep, and the roads leading out of the village were blocked by debris.
Both schools serve special needs children, and Cotting School staff travel to Haiti twice a year to volunteer at the school, which has many students with cerebral palsy and epilepsy.
“The kids are all right. That’s some good news,” Manzo said in a phone interview.
Jean Filias hosts a Haitian radio program on Radio Energy (1620-AM) in Dorchester. His phone was ringing off the hook last night with callers wondering about their relatives.
“They’re very scared. They don’t know what’s going on. It’s hard for them,” Filias said. “I just tell them to be calm and wait for tomorrow.”
Frustrated by the lack of information, many turned to the Internet.
Bill Forry, managing editor of The Boston Haitian Reporter, a monthly newspaper, blogged about the earthquake online.
“We’re trying to help people here make that connection and know that they’re not alone in this,” Forry said.
In Dorchester, the earthquake cast a pall over La Difference Restaurant, a brightly painted eatery that just reopened a few months ago after a fire ripped through the building.
Joel Eugene, a 21-year-old college student, said he was able to reach a cousin, a student in Port-au-Prince, for a few seconds.
“She said that it just happened just now. Everyone is panicked,” he said. “Then all of the sudden the communication just ended.”
Eugene’s fleeting conversation is more than Widner Degand, 35, a taxi driver, and Wislly Luxama, 21, a nurse, had heard as they lingered in Bon Appetit Restaurant, down Blue Hill Avenue in Mattapan.
Luxama was trying to get in touch with his grandmother, a US citizen who was spending the winter in Haiti.
“As soon as she calls me I will buy her a ticket to come home with me,” he said.
Degand, who has five children in Haiti, dialed their numbers without success. He kept his back to the television, avoiding the scenes of destruction.
“I don’t want to watch the news,” he said. “I just want to hear from my family.”