Atlanta woman killed in Haiti earthquake fondly remembered

The camera wouldn't work. Michele Bowman yelled at it while she was in the restroom at work. A voice came from the next stall: "Can I help you with something?"

Bowman, bemused, passed the digital camera under the partition. She looked at the feet of her unknown helper while the woman fiddled with the camera and got it to work.

"She was multi-tasking in the oddest of places," said Bowman. "We were bonding in a bathroom."

Bonding with this woman, soon to be a friend, was easy. A lot of people did it.

She could knit a baby's sock. She read best-sellers, classics and zombie thrillers. She founded a club whose members appreciate Scotch whiskey. She was friend, colleague, wife.

And now she is gone, her time on Earth marked by shared memories, photographs and e-mails no one can bear to delete.

Diane Caves of Atlanta, a policy analyst with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, was killed in the Jan. 12 earthquake in Haiti. This past Tuesday, nearly a month later, searchers found her body in the ruins of the hotel where she was staying. She traveled as much as she could. She laughed loud and often. She was 31.

A passion to help

She was in Haiti for a three-week visit, working with the CDC's President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief. She'd asked to go.

"She saw it as an opportunity to step away briefly from her duties in public-health preparedness and response, to do something completely different," Dr. Steve Harris, who is stationed in Haiti as part of the CDC's Global AIDS Program, said in an e-mail.

It was typical of Diane, say her friends, to visit an impoverished nation to help. Since her undergraduate days at Rice University, she'd been interested in aiding those less fortunate than she. It had been a driving force in her work at the CDC, where one of her greatest achievements had been authoring a report analyzing every state's public-health readiness in the event of a disaster.

She had been in Haiti less than a week when the 7.0 earthquake erupted. The force was enormous. The ruptured land rippled like a blanket snapped across a bed.

Homes fell into dusty heaps. The dome atop the national government building disintegrated into chunks of plaster and stone. People ran for their lives as structures tumbled.

Among the ruins: the Hotel Montana in Port-au-Prince, whose elegance was heightened by impoverished conditions elsewhere in the Caribbean nation. Diane had been staying in room 220. When they found her body, searchers added her name to a death toll that's reached an estimated 230,000. Nearly 100 U.S. citizens are dead, or presumed deceased, from the quake. Of more than 30 CDC workers in Haiti, Diane was the only one killed.

The discovery ended a weeks-long chain of prayers, Facebook postings and unspoken fears. It did not end the memories.

Loved knitting, zombies

Maggie Byrne cannot enter her bedroom without thinking of Diane. On her bed is a blanket, a wedding gift from the Tuesday Knitting Club, a group of enthusiasts who meet twice a month to lose themselves in yarn — yarns, too. Diane knitted one of the squares that comprise her blanket.

Turning to her closet, she sees more reminders.

"I hate to shop, so she would give me her [old] clothes," said Byrne. "She was very stylish."

Well-read, too. Friends say Diane read like the rest of us breathe — constantly. She always had a book nearby.

Melissa Arvay and Sandra Bulens are members of the Long Magazine Articles and Book Club, a name that recognizes the group's slower readers, who are happy if they make it to the end of a wordy magazine piece.

Diane was not one of them. She was like that cartoon roadrunner, a smile atop a fast-moving bundle of energy. The club recently finished Alan Brennert's "Moloka'i," a fictional account of a Hawaiian girl banished to a leper colony late in the 19th century. Diane was among the first to snap it shut.

Diane's tastes ran to the sensational, too. Two of her favorites: "I Am Legend" and "World War Z" — zombie books, in case you want to check them out.

"You know," Bulens said, "she liked vampire books, too."

She wasn't above a good glass of Scotch, either. She assembled an informal club of enthusiasts, who periodically met to sample the best of Scotland — single malt, please.

An inspiring colleague

Katherine Willoughby had steeled herself for a typical student speech. She expected nothing profound when the young woman stepped to the lectern at Georgia State University's 2007 Honors Day.

Moments later, Willoughby, a professor of public administration at GSU, realized she'd underestimated the speaker, who was finishing a master's degree in public administration. Everyone sat forward to listen to Diane Caves.

"She talked about how great it was to live in a country, and get paid, to serve others," said Willoughby. "It's what we professors want to hear."

Diane joined the CDC in 2007 after Ann O'Connor, who had worked with Diane when O'Connor was a regional inspector general for the Department of Health and Human Services, offered her a job.

"When I left [the former job] I couldn't work without her," said O'Connor, policy director for the CDC's public preparedness and response office. The office works to improve the nation's ability to respond to public health emergencies.

It proved a great hire. In 2009, Diane was chosen the Federal Employee of the Year in Atlanta. Six thousand other federal workers were eligible.

Her friends found out about Diane's award only after reading about it on web sites and in CDC publications. When they mentioned it, Diane was uncharacteristically quiet — tongue-tied, even.

Honors and emptiness

In recent days, her husband, Jeff Caves, has been quiet, too. He requested privacy as he deals with the loss of his wife, whom he wed six years ago. Her parents, who live in Oak Ridge, Tenn., also said they want to handle their grief quietly.

So here are a few final facts about Diane Caves:

She had a mutt named Preston. She often left half a donut on a co-worker's chair to keep from eating the whole thing. She played ultimate Frisbee, hiked, and exercised in CDC gyms; small surprise that she was a size 2. She planned to take up tennis when she got back from Haiti.

She returned late this week. Her body arrived at Dover Air Force Base in Dover, Del. It's the place where America often brings home deceased sailors, soldiers, airmen and Marines, the honored dead.

She'll be honored, too. On March 1, a CDC ceremony will recall Diane, whose name will be included on a wall that commemorates CDC employees who have died in the line of duty.

Memorials help, but they cannot leave a donut on a chair. Diane Caves should be knitting and reading, or swirling Scotch in a glass. She should be down the hall, maybe fixing a faulty camera, making a new friend in the unlikeliest of places.