Gorman: Haitian tragedy hits home for soccer coach

Kevin Gorman
| Thursday, Jan. 14, 2010

All Joenal Castma can do is pray.

He hadn't spoken directly to his mother or heard at all from his father in the 24 hours since a 7.0-magnitude earthquake turned Haiti's capital city of Port-au-Prince into rubble Tuesday and put his life on pause.

"I'm just praying," Castma said. "I won't know until I get a call."

A native of Long Island, N.Y., whose parents are both Haitian and four older sisters also were born there, Castma puts a Pittsburgh face on an international tragedy that promises only a staggering death toll.

Castma played professional soccer for the Riverhounds from 1999-2002, spent two years as an assistant women's coach under Sue Moy-Chin at Pitt in '06-07 and has an extensive background coaching youth soccer with the Penns Forest and, more recently, Allegheny Force club programs.

And Castma, who has dual citizenship, is something of a hero in his adopted homeland after playing for the Haitian national team in 2000 and '02. Soccer is the most popular sport in the Caribbean island, one that transcends the disparity between classes in one of the poorest countries in the world.

"Rich, poor, everyone loves the sport; it doesn't matter about status," Castma said. "It's a way to bring everyone together. Whenever I go there, I give back a lot. I actually started collecting soccer balls, cleats, shin guards - things we take for granted and the kids here outgrow - and I ship it back to the kids. The kids are excited when they get these things.

"Whenever I go, I bring brand-new soccer balls and leave them."

The earthquake has left Castma feeling helpless for Haiti. His mother, Jacqueline, spoke to one of his sisters and said she was "fine," but no one in the family has heard from their father, Joseph. And that was before the aftershocks, which registered at 5.9.

David Flavius, a Riverhounds teammate of Castma's, visited Port-au-Prince while playing for the St. Lucia national team and was amazed by the sheer number of people living in the capital. So he understands the degree of devastation, where the casualty count is expected to exceed 100,000.

Flavius tried to relate to Castma's dilemma by recalling the panic of Sept. 11, when he couldn't get in touch with a friend who worked at the World Trade Center's Twin Towers and spent that day wondering about his fate.

"I don't know exactly what Joenal is going through, but I have an idea," Flavius said. "It's crazy how devastating it is. It's heavily, heavily populated. And there's nowhere to go. When a disaster like that strikes ... unless you go to the city, you wouldn't understand it."

Castma has never lived in Haiti, but he trained there with the national team and has regularly visited his parents there since they returned home after retirement. But he speaks fluent French — "that's all I heard growing up," he says - and was amazed that his parents' property was damaged despite being located about 30 minutes from Port-au-Prince.

"What really sunk in was actually looking at the pictures. They were pretty graphic. That, to me, kind of hit home that this is real," Castma said. "The earthquake itself rumbled that far that it did damage to the property and their house. The houses there are built of concrete and stone, so they're pretty solid. But the problem is, when a situation like this happens, they don't have much give. Once it cracks, it's going down."

What worries Castma is that the buildings that collapsed atop the highest points of the city could tumble down the hills, creating more destruction. That's why Castma is hoping that people respond to this natural disaster as much by dropping to their knees as they do opening their wallets.

"The calls have been overwhelming, just the prayers, friends honestly I haven't spoken to in years. They happened to have my number and extend a call," Castma said. "It makes you remember that a lot of people care about you and your family. My phone has literally been off the hook ever since this happened, from all over the United States and other countries, as well.

"I try not to think of it. I always stay positive. My biggest thing is prayers. I tell everyone, 'Pray for the families.' Obviously, it's more than me and my family that's affected. I know the death toll is going to be pretty significant."

Joenal Castma won't know just how significant until he gets a call.

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