Wash. family awaits word on missing daughter

Image: Christopher Holmes and "Cazo" search rubble
Christopher Holmes and "Cazo", of the Urban Research and Rescue team from Fairfax County, Va., search for 22-year-old Molly Hightower, from Port Orchard, Wash., who may be trapped under the rubble of a collapsed orphanage in a suburb of  Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on Thursday. Carl Juste / AP
/ Source: msnbc.com

On Monday, the building where 22-year-old Molly Hightower lived and worked in Haiti was seven stories tall. On Tuesday, after a magnitude-7 quake flattened the Port-au-Prince suburb of Petionville, it was a heap of rubble.

“The pictures scare the living ...,” said Molly’s father, Mike, not finishing the thought.

Since learning about the quake on Tuesday, Mike and Mary Hightower have been desperately searching for any information about their daughter, who went to Haiti in June to volunteer for Friends of the Orphans, a Chicago-based group with orphanages across the Americas.

‘We haven’t heard anything,” he said. He did find photos of the building she lived and worked on a CNN Web site. But the images of tangled rebar and concrete offer little comfort.

As friends and family fill their Seattle-area home to await any news, Mike Hightower, 47, has been spending the hours watching CNN and MSNBC, calling business associates, doing interviews, and contacting lawmakers, all in the hope of learning that their daughter survived a disaster that many officials now believe may have killed as many as 50,000 people.

The family, including Molly's three siblings, Jordan, 24, Zach, 20 and Sean, 18, remains optimistic. Molly Hightower’s friend, Rachel Prusynski of Boise, was visiting her when the quake hit. She was found injured, but alive, after being on the top floor of the building. Two other volunteers on floors below Molly’s also survived.

“We talked to Rachel, she just described the building shaking, running for the door and the building collapsing,” he said. But he’s also heard more distressing news, like a father whose volunteer daughter was found alive, but whose son, who was in Haiti for visit, was killed.

Nobody knows exactly how many people are missing in Haiti. The stories of devastation from the country include the U.N. mission in Haiti, where up to 250 personnel remain unaccounted for. At one major hotel in Port-au-Prince, some 200 tourists are missing.

The International Committee of the Red Cross set up a special to help people find their missing loved ones, and after just a few hours, over 5,000 people had already registered on it, many from the United States and Canada.

Besides adding Molly's name to the U.S. State Department's list of missing people, Hightower has been circulating images of his daughter and the building where she lived to anyone he thinks could help. "My main focus is to get Molly's picture out there," said Hightower, a manager at Service Steel Aerospace Corp. in Tacoma, Wash.  "I'm pulling in all the favors."

Molly Hightower

The family learned Thursday afternoon that members of a search-and-rescue team from Fairfax County, Va., were combing over the rubble in search of Molly, but they had no other details.

Molly Hightower only recently returned from Haiti to Port Orchard, Wash., for a short visit before the Christmas holidays. In her blog, , a journal of her time in Haiti, she writes about coming home to her family, catching up with friends and eating fast-food. But her trip home was short and she was back at the orphanage for Christmas, where she found excited children, the mixed emotions of being away from her own family and the challenge of the job at hand.

“I spend almost everyday with the abandoned babies in the hospital, and it’s difficult to comprehend why and who would ever give them up,” she writes.

Her father said Molly’s goal — and one of the reasons she decided to volunteer in Haiti — is to work in international adoption. She graduated from the University of Portland in 2009, where one of her majors was French. While in Port Orchard, she took the GRE with the goal of going to graduate school to study sociology or psychology when she returns from Haiti over the summer. “She loves the children,” Mike said. “She understands the poverty.”

Still, she spoke with her family about the death and illness that afflict so many of Haiti’s young children, most of whom have grim hopes for the future in a country where the infant mortality rate is the highest among nations in the Western Hemisphere and where only slightly more than half of all adults can read and write.

Haiti and its people deal with the aftermath of January's earthquake.

“One of the things she hated was all the funerals she was going to,” her dad said.

As the hours tick by, Mike Hightower said he's found an outlet for his anxiety by talking about Molly's plight and making sure people in Haiti are looking for her. "I'm looking at it as therapy," he said. 'It's helping me deal with it."

Still, in the back of the mind, he imagines what it will be like to get word that his daughter is OK. One of the administrators for the Haitian orphanage has been arranging medical evacuations to a hospital in New Jersey for the volunteers who survive.

"We're going to hear that she's fine and that we're flying to New Jersey to meet her," he said.