ATLANTIS — For about 30 years, Doug Burbella has been traveling from South Florida to Port-au-Prince, Haiti, part of the missionary work he’s done for Living Water Ministries.
But the April 4 trip was different. This time, Burbella, a 55-year-old doctor from Coconut Creek, was shot three times in his shoulder, neck and jaw by a large Haitian gang. He pretended to be dead to stay alive.
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“I’m stable right now, just waiting for the surgery to remove the bullet from my spine,” Burbella said from Delray Medical Center on Thursday. “Haiti was pretty hectic.”
Burbella’s surgery lasted 3 1/2 hours. The bullet and four more pieces of shrapnel were removed.
Fred Chalker, CEO of Living Water Ministries, knows it could have been worse.
He’s also been doing missionary work for three decades in that region and understands the dangers, but never encountered anything like this.
“We speak to 6,000 children in 50 different schools,” Chalker said. “We work for a better education and I’ve brought them medical attention. We do it all the time. It was a normal trip.”
They were putting in $20,000 worth of servers and workstations into a new media center. “It was the first media center in the northwest,” said Chalker, who lives in Atlantis with his wife, Mary. “We developed it in the last six months.”
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Two trucks were loaded with tons of goods to distribute. The six men were headed northwest, which Chalker said is about a six-to-eight hour drive.
But coming into a village, they saw a barricade, where people were burning something, a site Chalker said he has seen several times before. The Toyota Hilux, the car ahead of the one Chalker was riding in, had luggage strapped to the top and some was in the back. Suddenly, the car stopped. Chalker’s vehicle was about 100 yards behind.
“We thought it was going to be another normal type of situation,” Chalker said. “The next thing you knew, we saw guys with guns and rifles.”
There were about 30 members of the gang with guns, sticks and other weapons. “They started climbing on the roof of the car and took the bags down,” Chalker said. “The driver rolled down his window and was talking to them and they pulled him around back. The guys started pounding on the windows of the car.”
So, Chalker’s car backed up, trying to figure out what to do. Then, according to Chalker, the gang members started chasing them and firing shots. They shot out the back tire.
“We were (almost) away, then we saw them coming with motorcycles, driving with one hand and shooting with the other,” Chalker said.
After Burbella was shot, Chalker said his car stopped and they started yelling at the people with guns. “They were angry and we were yelling at them saying we’re missionaries and are here to help,” Chalker said. “We’re not here to hurt you. You’re picking on the wrong people.”
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Drew Pasler, a 32-year-old Delray Beach resident, said he thought he was going to die. “My heart was in my stomach and I felt hopeless,” he said. “I thought this was it and it was going to be my last day on this earth.”
Pasler said there were quite a few shots. He said there were about seven or eight in the car he was driving.
Jeff Lee, a 60-year-old Stuart resident, said he immediately started praying to God. “I was trying to communicate to friendly looking people with hand signals that we were trying to help their kids,” Lee said. “Of course I was afraid, but I wasn’t shaking and trembling and I knew we needed to deal with this. It was an emotional roller coaster ride.”
One man in Chalker’s car was a Haitian construction worker. He saw a guy on a motorcycle speaking English. The Haitian man stopped the guy and said he would take care of the situation. “He said something and the gunman left,” Chalker said.
But before that, the gunmen took money and cell phones. “Some of them gave back the cell phones, but I didn’t get mine,” Chalker said.
The entire attack was only about 10 minutes, but it was terror-filled, Chalker said. “I was so concerned for all the missionaries,” he said. “I did not have any fear for my life. I’m 75 years old and am ready to go. Until the firing started, I didn’t think there was any danger.”
Lee said after the gunmen realized they did not have anything of significant value on them, the rebels moved on, but there was a race to get to a nearby doctor and back to the U.S. as soon as possible.
Mary, Fred’s wife, said she trusted God would take care of her husband of 50 years. “I know God is watching over him and whatever happens, it’ll be in God’s hands, not mine,” she said.
Chalker’s daughter, Michelle Pace, said she’s glad her dad is fine. “It was a scary thing, but I’m just grateful that he’s OK,” she said.
Michael Burbella, Doug’s 17-year-old son, said he and his mom didn’t get the news right away. “We were an emotional mess when we found out,” he said. “We were both crying. He’s been going to Haiti for 30 years and this is the first time he got shot.”
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Chalker said later that he was attacked by a Haitian gang.
“They’re almost like a revolutionary team,” he said. “They’ve built up a large arsenal there.”
Missionary work has been part of Chalker’s life for a long time. He used to own The Carousel Antique Center on Lake Avenue, a downtown staple for more than 50 years. He sold it in 2016 it for close to $1.2 million to a real estate investment group based in Fort Lauderdale. “I sold that to get money to support the mission and I’ve been full-time since that point,” Chalker said.
But now he’s concerned about his ministry, saying that the attack will seriously hurt his work.
“People will be more scared to go and this will create a serious financial problem for the ministry,” he said. “This trip cost anywhere between $10,000 to $20,000.”
Pasler said he’s nervous about going back to Haiti in another month. “But I was shown mercy that day and we’re only doing the work we’ve been put on this earth to do,” he said.
Chalker plans to go back to Haiti in another week. The cost for that trip: $10,000. “Where we go, it’s sheer country filled with country folks,” Chalker said. “There’s no danger at all. It’s peaceful and regular folks. It’s like going to Kansas.”
To donate to Burbella’s recovery click here.