Pulliam Award winner recalls riveting stories from Haiti earthquake

On April 13, 2011 Pulliam Award winner Rukmini Callimachi visited Ball State University to share her award winning story about the Hotel Montana Facebook community.

Rukmini Callimachi, the winner of the Department of Journalism’s 2011 Eugene S. Pulliam National Journalism Writing Award, found a unique way to tell the story of a community stretched across the world and formed in the wake of the tragedy, a community woven together by a Facebook page.

When Associated Press reporter Rukmini Callimachi arrived in Port-au-Prince, Haiti over a month after the capital city was ravaged by a 7.0 earthquake she knew finding a fresh angle through which to tell the story of the people of Haita and thier heartache and struggle would be difficult. She didn’t suspect, however, that her story idea would be generated from her time surfing Facebook.

Upon arriving in Haiti Callimachi found herself drawn to the most luxurious hotel in Port-au-Prince, the Hotel Montana, which had collapsed during the quake. In the month since the quake, the story of people killed or still missing in the Hotel Montana ruble had been told by numerous reporters. Still Callimachi was drawn to the tragedy of the Hotel Montana.

“I was in the Associated Press office in Haiti and I was doing what all procrastinating reporters do which was surfing Facebook,” Callimachi explained to a standing-room only crowd of students in the Ball State student center. “Through a friend I stumbled upon a Facebook page dedicated to people still missing in Hotel Montana.”

As news of the Jan. 12, 2010 earthquake spread across the world family members of people visiting Haiti searched desperately for ways to contact their friends and family members. Faced with the uncertainty of being thousands of miles removed from the situation two sisters and their brother in New Jersey created a Facebook page about the Hotel Montana and wrote the name of their uncle who was staying at the hotel.

Within minutes dozens of names appeared on the page from family members around the globe. By the time Callimachi found the page it had more than 17,000 Facebook “fans,” becoming a tight-knit community for those searching for or grieving the loss of family members.

With gripping accounts of a handful of the victims that died in the Hotel Montana, Callimachi captured the attention of the students just as she captured readers with her award winning story, “Haiti Quake: Mourning on the Hotel Montana.”

Story telling has been a vital part of Callimachi’s life for as long as she could remember. The native of Romania recalled Romanian fairytales that her mother read to her as a child, citing how her mother explained that someday she would be able to read the stories on her own and finish them however she wanted. A few years later when Callimachi was in elementary school, Callimachi said, her teacher asked students to write fairytale of their own. At that moment, Callimachi explained, she realized that the stories she loved to read were written by people and one of those people could be her.

Callimachi’s story telling has taken her around the world. Before going to the Associated Press Callimachi worked for National Public Radio and Time Magazine, winning several awards along the way.

Callimachi explained her passion for story telling saying that she tries to write stories that, “…I would want to read,” while also urging aspiring writers to, “Find something that moves you and write that story.”