But now that they are in the United States, the process of getting settled into their temporary homes and getting help for the injuries suffered in the earthquake can begin.
Vladmir Fontaine is happy to be in Chicago.
"Yes, but it is much cold[er]!" said Fontaine. The 13-year-old has seen too much.
"I ran, and my papa called my name and told me to jump," he said in French.
His 7-year-old sister was killed as the house crumbled all around them. He says he remembers his father calling out to him to jump to safety. It's a tale that overwhelms his mother, Roselene Joseph, who lives in Miami, and went to Haiti to get the child.
Vladimir was taken to the Chicago Christian Industrial League's offices Thursday night and was processed along with dozens of others arriving from Haiti. Most of the evacuees hold U.S. citizenship or permanent resident status and are headed to where they can get help.
"I'm going to my dad's home," Aneline Presende said.
Joseph Avril landed Thursday night with his children, ages 2 and 6.
"The earth went like this," Avril said while motioning. "On and off."
Avril is going back to Haiti to try to get his wife into the U.S. Meanwhile, his children will go to relatives in Miami, however, to avoid chaos.
"There is nothing. The country is dead. There's no light. There's no water. There's no system, There's no government. There's no police. There's nothing," said Avril.
Slowly that trauma is giving way to new memories as Chicagoans reach out to help.
"They went through horrific experience, and their resilience is amazing. They get off the plane into a cold, weather-wise, but I think a warm environment, I think, with all the agencies that have been involved," said Mark Mulroe of A Safe Haven Foundation.
Vladimir's broken arm and elbow were set at Stroger Hospital. He's scheduled for surgery to fix his broken jaw Monday.
"People from Chicago welcome us, and my son is about to have good medical care, thank you very much," Roselene Joseph said tearfully.
Vladimir's doctors at Stroger say he will make a full physical recovery, but the psychological wounds of losing his sister and being separated from his father will require a lot of work to heal.
Volunteers show up at airport to help evacuees
As the young boy and other evacuees arrived, Red Cross volunteers and social workers from the city and state met them with warm clothes and food, after they went through customs. About 40 of those refugees were infants and children with their families. Those that arrived Thursday night were housed overnight at Christian Industrial League on West Roosevelt.
On Friday morning, many of those who were traveling to other U.S. cities boarded buses bound for O'Hare Airport.
"I think a lot of the Red Cross volunteers who were volunteering yesterday expected it to be sad and very difficult. What we found was quite the contrary. They were full of energy and joy. And while there were a few tragic stories in the midst, most of them were just happy to be in a place where they were safe," said Jackie Mitchell, Red Cross director of marketing and communications.
For Haitians with relatives in the U.S., the Red Cross tried to locate them, and United Airlines offered them tickets to reunite with those loved ones. Most of the evacuees who had nowhere else to go found a warm bed at shelters like the Christian Industrial League.
Some people who wanted to help the Haitians showed up to donate clothes and other items to the shelter early Friday morning.
"I just know that they need it. It's cold here. I know they don't have anything, so I just wanted to help out really bad, so that's why I'm down here this hate at night. I just had to do it," said Stephanie Lewis.
Early Thursday morning, a group of 80 evacuees arrived at the Christian Industrial League. Twenty-four hours later, many of them were already dispersed and reunited with family and friends all over the country.
Respite in Chicago
"I'm glad to be here. Even though I can't go today, still, it's not a problem. I'm still alive," said Kesler Joley, Haitian evacuee.
Providing for the dozens of evacuees, however, is a Herculean task.
"Whatever the need, we're trying to get them met at this point," said Nerressa Billingsley, relief worker.
"I thank God we are away, but I pray for all my brothers and sisters in Haiti," said Nordine Mondesir, Haitian evacuee.
Once in Chicago, understandably exhausted and traumatized, the rescued received warm clothes, a cooked meal and some comfort.
For 13-year-old Haitian-American Vanessa Louis, the help comes right on time. Separated from her older siblings, Louis and her mother plan to head to Miami Friday to stay with relatives and eventually hope to reunite their family.
"Life is not that easy. One day you say life is good, another day everything is gone. It's really hard," said Louis.
Louis was in Port-au-Prince visiting with family when the earthquake hit, and several aftershocks followed.
"It had another earthquake while I was in the embassy. I was praying God, when can I get out," said Louis.
Louis did get out along with her mother who has legal residency in the U.S., but not with her older siblings who are all Haitian citizens.
"She just feels sad. It's really hard for her. They don't have no food to eat, no place to go, nothing to do," said Louis.
Like Louis, Mondesir was temporarily calling the Chicago Christian Industrial League home.
"God saved my daughter. The school fell on her. Some one broke a wall and pulled her out," said Mondesir.
While Mondesir's niece died in the earthquake, Joley is just glad to be alive.
"We felt desperate... when the Good Samaritan Americans came. We felt we survived and they help us any way they can," said Joley.
Trying to fly out of Haiti
As many as 30 similar United Airlines rescue flights are planned between Chicago and Port-au-Prince.
Patience prevailed at the Port-au-Prince Airport Thursday despite the heat and the horrors Haitians have seen.
"The situation is bad. I don't know exactly, me, maybe I can die here," said Michael Jonlamo, waiting to leave Haiti.
Just a handful of U.S. State Department workers were at the front of line to grant those with passports and visas permission to leave. It was a choke-point that caused humanitarian flights -- like another United flight traveling to Haiti from Chicago Wednesday -- to return to the United States with empty seats.
The wait to get out of Haiti is horrendous, sometimes stretching more than 24 hours. People have to wait in endless lines before they can even be considered for a flight out.
Winnetka native and former Marine William McNulty is part of a team that has been on the ground for more than a week.
"Right now at the general hospital, the largest hospital in Haiti, all the patients are in the streets. Women are giving birth to babies, there are broken limbs and amputations being done in the streets right now," said McNulty.
"I'm hoping to return home the same person but more and more I'm starting to doubt that's going to happen," said Karem Korkmaz, medical volunteer from Chicago.
The first United Airlines humanitarian flight to go to Haiti returned to Chicago with 68 adults and 13 kids aboard. Half were U.S. citizens returning home. The other half were Haitians who were fortunate enough to get visas.