CMT Insider Interview: Big Kenny Reflects on Search for Friend Following Haitian Earthquake

Walt Ratterman Was Helping People in Port-au-Prince When Tragedy Struck

(Editor’s note: The following story is based upon Big Kenny‘s recent interview with CMT Insider producer Terry Bumgarner.)

Kenny Alphin — better known as Big Kenny of Big & Rich — begins his story simply enough: “I went to Haiti to look for my friend, Walt Ratterman.”

Ratterman was apparently at the Hotel Montana in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, when the building crumbled from the tremors created by the magnitude 7 earthquake. He is the CEO of SunEnergy Power International, a nonprofit agency in Washougal, Wash., that develops and implements humanitarian renewable energy projects in remote, rural parts of the world.

Alphin’s friendship with Ratterman began prior to his initial trip to Sudan to bring medical and school supplies, musical instruments and clothing to the Kunyuk School for Girls. The singer-songwriter was looking for a way to power cameras he was using to shoot videos of the plight of the Sudanese people who face violence, malnutrition and disease as a result of the government militia’s campaign against rebels in Darfur.

“Walt was the first guy that agreed to go to Sudan with me back in 2007 when I traveled over there the first time,” Alphin told CMT Insider. “It was quite a big deal for me here in Nashville because nobody really wanted me to go. And I had found out about this guy named Walt Ratterman, who was a solar renewable energy specialist. He had a history of going around the world and going to some of the roughest places there are. I had a bunch of people that said they were going to go. Most all of them bailed out at the last minute. … So, needless to say, we spent some quality time together over there in the flats of Sudan. And over the past few years, we’ve become quite good buddies. He is quite an inspiring fellow, quite a mentor.”

The day before the earthquake, Alphin received an e-mail from Ratterman, who was working in Haiti.

“His e-mail said, ‘Kenny, I’ve been thinking a lot about you lately. Looking forward to seeing you. Thinking a lot about life.’ He said, ‘I’ve come to the conclusion that other than family being first and foremost … I figure the most important things in life are helping other people and music. And I guess that’s why you and I met up.’”

Alphin played a gig that night and found out about the earthquake when he arrived at the airport for his flight home.

“I saw the news on the airport CNN,” he said. “I called his wife and said, ‘Is Walt OK?’ And she hadn’t heard from him. He was traveling back into the city of Port-au-Prince to have a meeting with a rep from USAID [a governmental agency that promotes global economic, health, agricultural and humanitarian initiatives]. I guess they were having him consult to them or something. The meeting was at 6 o’clock at the Hotel Montana.

“The best information that I have been able to obtain is that he arrived there with one of his other project managers and was sitting outside preparing for the meeting — or sitting somewhere preparing for his meeting — and a 7.2 magnitude earthquake hit at 5:30. And he hasn’t been heard of since.

“And to the best of my abilities, I haven’t been able to find him. The Hotel Montana looks like what was left of the Twin Towers after 9/11. It was about 10 stories that were kind of just built on this mountain and into these ravines. It was built and added to over decades and decades. They never really had any building codes down there.”

Alphin got a better idea of the extent of the devastation once he traveled to Port-au-Prince and saw the city.

“Driving down the street, going from one end to the other where the Hotel Montana was, you’d see what it was like,” he said. “I have nothing in my lifetime to compare it to, really. … There was just rubble everywhere.”

Alphin, a Virginia native, immediately found some allies when he saw a rescue team from Fairfax County, Va.

“These were all from the Virginia Task Force 1, which is the No. 1 search and rescue team,” he said. “Any catastrophe anywhere in the world, they’re the first ones called by the U.N.”

Alphin introduced himself to a member of the task force and explained why he was there.

“Immediately, he was just incredibly professional and respectful and awesome,” he said. “He grabbed one of his other managers and the proceeded to walk me around the entire site, showing me what they’d done in the past five days. They showed me all the tunneling they had done, directed me into the tunnels and told me to go as far as I wanted to go. Crawling in, he wanted me to see that they were doing everything humanly possible to get these people out of the building. …

“They had rescued 15 people out of the hotel at that point. … They saved a lot of lives, and I went into everything that they showed me, just trying to get an understanding of what the structure was and if possibilities might still exist. A lot of the places I went, about 99.9 percent of the world would not in any way, shape or form crawl into these places that these search and rescue guys have crawled into.”

Alphin went there to find his friend but was soon overcome with emotion after witnessing what the residents of Port-au-Prince have had to deal with as a result of the earthquake.

“At the time I was down there, 75,000 bodies were buried outside of the city,” he said. “I would not fret to say, just from driving through the city, there were tens of thousands more that were burned in the streets because the stench was so bad. The morgues were full, the hospitals were full. … It’s probably a quarter of a million people dead there.”

Alphin still maintains hope that Ratterman has somehow survived, although he realizes the possibility becomes less likely with each passing day.

“They maintained what we call search and rescue up until the two-week point,” he said. “And history tells us that’s about as long as anybody is yet to survive. But I am still pretty sure that Walt is going to come walking up to me anywhere now, any minute, and he’ll tap me on the shoulder and look me right in the eye go, ‘You look like you could use a little help.’ And I’ll go, ‘You son of a bitch. Yeah, grab a hammer.’”

Language and cultural boundaries seem to disappear when people gather to help others.

“It is amazing … the dudes from these search and rescue teams from all over the world that get there as quickly as they can get there,” Alphin said. “And even when I was there, there were still teams coming in. The French showed up when I was there. You meet people in situations like that and the conversation, whether you know the language or not, there are two words that everybody seems to know — and that is ‘love’ and ‘family.’

“And they all just reach over and grab you by the chest. This is what we are here for — love — and that is why I am here, man. I don’t know what else I can tell you.”