It was sweltering when the Blackhawk landed on the narrow airstrip of the USS Carl Vinson, a United States air carrier floating thirty miles from the shores of Port-au-Prince. It was Friday, January 15, three days after a 7.0-magnitude earthquake had rocked the Haitian capital, and I was among a small coterie of foreign journalists who secured a spot on a Navy helicopter. Three days earlier, I had been eating sushi in Mexico City, where I live and work as a freelance journalist, when I first read about the quake. Though I had never reported from Haiti, my first job out of college at The Miami Herald had piqued my interest in the country, and my instinct told me I should go.

In the naïve early hours after the disaster, I had booked a direct flight on Air France from Miami into Port-au-Prince. But by the next day, all commercial flights into Haiti were canceled. It was my first introduction into the logistical challenges of reporting from the site of a disaster—challenges that take on a particular pitch when you’re going in without a satellite phone or a big wad of cash.

I made my way to Florida anyway, and finagled a ride on the Blackhawk, which U.S. Southern Command was sending from Homestead Air Base to the Carl Vinson, the first vessel to come to Haiti’s assistance after the quake. The air carrier was serving as a launching pad for military planes shuttling in supplies from air bases, including Guantanamo Bay, to sites around Haiti. In one fell swoop, I had secured transportation and free room and board.

On January 17, I finally made my first sojourn into Port-au-Prince, boarding a supply sortie that dropped me off at Toussaint Louverture International Airport, named for Haiti’s revolutionary leader. After being warned by the Navy pilots to return by dusk, I wandered down the long tarmac, past Geraldo Rivera and camps of other TV reporters and recently landed aid teams, then through a door marked “UN Headquarters” and into the dimly lit airport building. A man in glasses and light-blue hospital scrubs asked me for earplugs and water. I handed over an extra pair of plugs and he introduced himself as Dominique Louis of the Naples, Fla.-based Green Children’s House, which had brought doctors and supplies to Haiti. Louis was bringing the water to the devastated general hospital where they were working, he told me. Did I want to see it?

We navigated through the airport’s powerless hallways to the main entrance, where we were blinded by the white light pouring through the doors and overcome by the crush of people and cars just beyond the gate. I had heard that getting in and out of the airport was nearly impossible, but for an American it was surprisingly easy. I pulled out my video camera as Louis led me to a white jeep that he said belonged to his aunt’s husband. Turning onto Toussaint Louverture Boulevard, we passed mounds of concrete, trash and debris, dilapidated store fronts, crushed cars. Corpses were splayed everywhere. Signs balanced on piles announced bodies waiting to be recovered—“U.S. Welcome We Need Help Dead Bodies,” one read. “This is a Haitian holocaust,” Louis told me.

The gate at the entrance to the Hospital d’ Universitat d’Haiti had collapsed, bent into a claw-shaped barrier, so there was only one route in and out of a building where thousands were dying. Howls of pain escaped into the courtyard, where about 1,000 people waited under the burning sun for medical attention, swatting flies away from open wounds. Later that day, members of the Army’s 82nd Airborne arrived to direct traffic.

As the day went on, Louis and I were separated. As the sun began to fall and he had not returned, I put on the helmet and rubber face mask the Navy had assigned to me and snapped onto the back of a motorbike, whizzing back to the airport past the sunken Presidential Palace, the hollowed Notre Dame Cathedral, and narrow streets full of people. Soon I was back on the helicopter, shooting through the sunset-streaked clouds, over Haiti’s southern coast, its smashed buildings and hungry people, until the land gave way to the blue of the Caribbean.

I returned to Port-au-Prince the next day, again riding in on a supply sortie. This time I hired a driver, and, unwittingly, a translator, and retraced my steps from the day before, also going to the destroyed suburb of Carrefour. We stopped at the Hotel Olaffson, where journalists were writing from the wraparound porch and paying as much as $100 a night to camp within its iron gates. On the way to the U.S. Embassy and back to the airport, we stopped often to photograph the dead.

Emily Schmall is a freelance journalist living in Mexico City. Her reporting about the earthquake in Haiti can be found here.