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Parents of missing students: ‘Living nightmare’

Relatives of a group of Florida college students missing since Haiti's capital city was left in ruins by an earthquake pleaded Monday for the United States to do more to search for their loves in the rubble of a Port-au-Prince hotel.
/ Source: TODAY contributor

For six days, they have kept hope alive against the odds. They are parents and family and loved ones of American students still missing in Haiti, and as the chances of finding anyone alive dwindle, they are desperate for help.

“This is a nightmare. This is a living nightmare,” Len Gengel said Monday morning, his voice racked with sobs.

Gengel’s daughter, Brittany, is one of four students from Lynn University in Deerfield Beach, Fla., who have been missing since last Tuesday’s 7.0 earthquake leveled much of Port-au-Prince. Also missing are two faculty advisers who went to Haiti with the group of 12 students who planned to spend their winter break helping Haiti’s poor.

Parents of the students and family of the faculty members have gathered at the university campus, clinging to hope that their loved ones may still be found alive in the flattened wreckage of the Hotel Montana where they were staying.

They know time is short.

“As parents of people that are buried in that rubble, we need troops at that hotel. I have pleaded with [President Obama], father to father, to please get troops to the Hotel Montana. We need government intervention,” Len Gengel told TODAY’s Meredith Vieira in a group interview with parents of the missing students. “The United States of America needs to get to the Hotel Montana and get our children — NOW!”

Thousands of U.S. troops are in Haiti, helping to coordinate relief efforts, including getting food and water to an increasingly desperate population of hundreds of thousands rendered homeless by the quake. More than two dozen search-and-rescue organizations are also in the Haitian capital, scouring the endless expanse of collapsed buildings for anyone who may still be alive.

“We are very appreciative of the rescuers who are on the ground,” another parent, Jean Gianacaci, told Vieira. “We need more reinforcements. There’s nothing we can do but hope.”

Gianacaci’s daughter, Christine, is also among the missing. Her father, John Gianacaci, told Vieira that the students from Lynn University went to Haiti for the best of reasons.

“It was a mission of hope,” John Gianacaci said. “These are children that had choices to do almost anything, but they chose to go to Haiti — a mission of hope — to give their time to the needy, and they began to accomplish that goal. They spent time with children in orphanages. These are children that have great hearts. They’re givers. We need to continue to have hope to get them back.”

Lin and Lenny Crispinelli’s daughter, Stephanie, is also among the missing. They and the Gengels had all been told initially that their daughters had been found alive and well, only to be informed that the reports were false and the young women were missing.

Lin Crispinelli didn’t blame anyone for the false report.

“It was just a mix-up in communications,” she told Vieira. “As we all know, everybody’s doing the best that they can and the communications are very poor. That’s one of the problems that we’ve been having. We don’t get anything back. Nobody does.”

Like Len Gengel, Crispinelli pleaded for help in digging through the ruins of the hotel for the missing.

“We need people and we need people to get there fast,” she said. “Time is working against us. If you can just take a moment and envision what it would be like if it was one of your children, if it was one of your parents and you didn’t know know for six days what their condition was, whether they’re under the rubble, whether they’re hurting, whether they’re waiting for you to come and rescue them.”

The fourth missing student is Courtney Hayes, whose parents are in the Dominican Republic searching hospitals for their daughter while her boyfriend, Matt Sears, keeps vigil at Lynn University.

Cherylann Gengel, said her missing daughter, Brittany, had undergone an epiphany on her arrival in Haiti on Monday, Jan. 11, the day before the earthquake struck.

“She was at a crossroads before she went down there,” Cherylann said. “When she was home for Christmas break, we were talking about when she went back, what she was going to do. She was in communications. She said, ‘Mom, I really want to change my major. I want to go into human services.’ We said, ‘Let’s think about it.’ ”

Cherylann said they could discuss it when Brittany returned from Haiti. “She got down there Monday and her first e-mail — I don’t think she was even there probably two hours — said, ‘Mom, I know what I want to do with the rest of my life,’ ” Cherylann told Vieira. “She loved being down there. She fell in love with the children. I think when she comes back, I’m going to let her change her major.”

But time is running out, and the parents are acutely aware of that.

“We’re U.S. citizens,” Lin Crispinelli pleaded. “We achieve miracles. We need a miracle now, and we need it today.”