An Ottawa police officer working with the United Nations in Haiti narrowly escaped death while travelling in a truck with several colleagues during the massive Jan. 12 earthquake.

Sgt. Martin LeBlanc was in his last week of a nine-month mission with the RCMP in Haiti, where he trained police officers in Cap Haitien and worked in the UN headquarters in Port-au-Prince.

He had been offered a three-month extension but turned it down to return home to his wife, Kelly, and 11-year-old son in Russell, Ont.

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Ottawa Police Sgt. Martin Leblanc spent nine months with the RCMP at the UN peacekeeping operations in Haiti. ((Steve Fischer/CBC))

Tuesday, Jan. 12, was the date of his farewell party.

After spending the day trying to tie up loose ends before his departure, LeBlanc decided to give his team a break. He let them leave the office early, at 4:45 p.m., so they'd have a chance to relax and get ready for his goodbye dinner.

"We were [heading out in] two vehicles to leave the UN headquarters of the Christopher Hotel," LeBlanc told reporters in Ottawa. "The first crew of three left prior to us [by] a few seconds, and then we followed them and left the building.

"We cheered and we laughed about the last week that was ahead of me."

'This is an earthquake'

LeBlanc was in a UN-marked truck with colleagues, some from China and one from Uruguay.

'Everything I have known about what is safe was not safe.'—Sgt. Martin LeBlanc

Suddenly, at 4:53 p.m., the vehicle began to shake left and right and move in "a very unusual way," LeBlanc said.

"My first original thought was, 'It's very windy today'," LeBlanc recounted. "And as the vehicle started to move a little bit more, and as we stared to see ground and dirt falling down the hill beside us, we understood there was something abnormal happening.

"We looked at each other, and we at the same time said, "This is an earthquake'."

As LeBlanc and his team got out of the truck, the ground began shake even harder.

"We were trying to hold each other and hold ourselves on the vehicle," said LeBlanc.

Dirt and rocks fell all around them. A nearby stone wall "just literally exploded," LeBlanc said. It lasted seconds but felt like minutes, LeBlanc said, as he hoped for it to stop.

"During those 35 seconds, everything I have known about what is safe was not safe," he said.

On instinct, he said, he had the trucks turn around and head back for the UN headquarters. Debris made the roads almost impossible to navigate while dust made visibility almost nil. He found the six-storey building in ruins, and many of his colleagues trapped or feared dead inside the rubble.

Rescue attempts

LeBlanc rescued four people almost immediately.

Over the next hours, LeBlanc and other survivors dug through the rubble to rescue their colleagues.

But as darkness fell, the search became harder. They had no flashlights or other light sources.

"We just go by sound," LeBlanc said. "But the debris would keep falling off, and it was very, very dangerous for us to get closer.

"So, we waited a little longer, until the next morning, when we went back at it. And we tried to free up more people."

For the next six days, LeBlanc worked steadily at the airport, escorting the hundreds of international rescuers who came from around the world to the damaged parts of the city.

He also escorted the injured and continued the desperate search for survivors.

A total of 81 UN workers died in the earthquake, including five Canadians, the UN has confirmed. LeBlanc's boss, RCMP Chief Supt. Doug Coates, who was Haiti's acting police commissioner at the time of the quake, is among the dead.

Would return to Haiti

On Tuesday, LeBlanc cried as he extended his deepest sympathy to Coates's family and friends.

"It's been a very difficult experience," LeBlanc told reporters, fighting back tears. "But at the same time, [it's been] extraordinarily rewarding to see the Canadians getting together and working very hard to assist the Haitian community.

"I'm glad to say we really made a difference after this tragedy."

Asked if he'd go back after what he'd been through, LeBlanc said he would if his family agreed.

"It's a very important part of who Martin is, his desire to help, and to teach others," said his wife, Kelly. "I would stand by him if he felt it was something he needed to do."