SALIDA — The phone call Lisa Birch was waiting for the past 29 days finally came Wednesday.
That didn't soften the blow when she learned her husband's body was found in the rubble of a Haiti hotel.
About 10:45 a.m., the State Department notified her that crews had found the body of her husband, Jim Birch, in the ruins of the Hotel Montana.
"They told me his body had been positively identified, using dental records," she said. "They couldn't tell me where he was found or what time."
Jim Birch had been in the country's capital city of Port-au-Prince for about three hours on a business trip when the magnitude 7.0 earthquake struck Jan. 12, leveling his hotel.
In the first week after the quake, Lisa Birch clung to the hope that her husband was alive, trapped beneath the 145-room Hotel Montana, which pancaked so badly that the roofline came with inches of the ground.
Like other U.S. residents with loved ones believed to be trapped at the hotel, she received regular updates through State Department conference calls and e-mails.
She said Wednesday that nobody had been found alive at the hotel since that first week after the quake, so her hope had dimmed.
Despite the sadness of the news, she said she and her family are relieved that they finally can bring home her husband. "There are a lot of families out there that aren't going to get that kind of closure," she said.
Return delayed by storms
She said her husband's body probably won't be sent back to the United States for another two days.
The body will come through Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, where an autopsy will be conducted. That'll have to wait because of blizzards that have bogged down the East Coast, Lisa Birch said.
It might take at least a week before Jim Birch's body comes home. Lisa Birch said she plans to hold a memorial service in Stanislaus County after her husband is buried in a private funeral in his native Washington state in March.
She said authorities have told her that her husband is one of 17 U.S. citizens believed to be in the wreckage of the Hotel Montana. The latest estimates of deaths from the quake have reached to more than 230,000.
Rescue crews, including teams from the United States, France and Chile, rotated in around-the-clock shifts looking for people trapped underneath the hotel, Lisa Birch said.
She said about 100 to 150 people were always working at the site, including military personnel who were protecting the site and clearing pieces of rubble so the rescue crews could work unabated. Heavy equipment was brought in to remove the larger rubble.
Jim Birch, 50, started working as an independent contractor with New York-based LandTek in April, because the recession dried up work for his business renovating and building golf courses.
LandTek was talking with the Haitian government about building schools and sports complexes. Birch filled in at the last moment on the business trip with three colleagues.
One colleague, John Scarboro of Georgia, escaped from the rubble. But Scarboro's son-in-law Dave Apperson, LandTek employee Joe Guercia and Birch did not.
Lisa Birch said Guercia's family has been notified that his remains have been found, while Apperson still is missing. She called Apperson's wife Wednesday to give her the news. "We promised we would call each other if we heard anything," she said.
Supporting other families
She spent most of the day on the phone calling other friends and family. She felt she owed them a call after supporting her through such a tough time.
The Birches have been married for 14 years and have a 9-year-old daughter, Megan, a fourth-grader at Dena Boer Elementary School in Salida.
Lisa Birch said people at her daughter's school and throughout Salida also have offered their support.
"My friends here have rallied around us," she said before offering a message of hope. "Keep praying for the people still missing and for the wonderful rescue workers."
Bee staff writer Kevin Valine contributed to this report.
Bee staff writer Rosalio Ahumada can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2394.