Haitians await rescuers as quake toll may top 100,000

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Jan 14, 2010 (AFP) - Frantic Haitians awaiting a global rescue effort clawed through the ruins of their capital seeking survivors from an earthquake that left streets strewn with corpses and a death toll that may top 100,000.

Injured and shocked survivors steeled themselves Thursday for a second night on streets and sidewalks littered with the dead from Haiti's worst earthquake in more than a century.

Venezulelan rescue workers unload medical and other relief supplies flown-in on a Venezuelan military cargo plane January 13, 2010 in Port-Au-Prince (AFP photo)

Schools, hospitals, hotels, ministries and the presidential palace lay in ruins and people caked in blood and dust pleaded for help as they or their loved ones lay trapped beneath mountains of concrete in a mostly destroyed Port-au-Prince, an AFP correspondent said.

Mournful singing and prayer rose above the dust and debris-cloaked city of two million people as darkness descended on a destitute nation thoroughly unprepared to cope with a tragedy of this magnitude.

In a city street, an overwhelmed preacher warned in Creole about the end of the world.

A dead victim was pinned between the fallen roof of her home and her bed, and rescuers tore at the wreckage of a children's hospital with their bare hands.

Jeanwell Antoine held a trapped baby's arm and sought to comfort it as he clawed through the rubble.

"It is not me who is pushing back this earth. It is the hand of God, who loves life and is guiding me so I can save this baby," he said.

With every hour crucial for those trapped, a global aid operation swung into action, with rescue teams bringing heavy lifting gear, sniffer dogs and desperately-needed medicines, food and water.

"The priority is to find survivors," Elisabeth Byrs, a spokeswoman for the UN's Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, said as the UN mobilized search and rescue teams.

"We are working against the clock," she said.

Casualty figures were impossible to calculate, but Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive told CNN the final death toll from the 7.0 quake could be "well over 100,000." President Rene Preval told the network 50,000 could be dead.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who canceled an Asia trip to return to Washington, compared the tragedy to the Asian tsunami which killed more than 220,000 people five years ago.

"The Indian Ocean tsunami was such a terrible tragedy and with such high loss of life. This will be a very high loss of life as well," she said.

Preval, unsure of where he would sleep after his home and the presidential palace were destroyed, painted a scene of utter devastation.

"Parliament has collapsed. The tax office has collapsed. Schools have collapsed. Hospitals have collapsed," he told the Miami Herald.

With thousands of people missing, dazed survivors in torn clothes wandered through the rubble as more than 30 aftershocks rocked the ramshackle and impoverished capital.

Dust filled the air, scattered fires broke out, and injured people slumped on the blood-soaked floor of one clinic waiting for treatment. Outside a field hospital, mothers huddled with shell-shocked children.

Injured survivors were carried on makeshift stretchers past piles of smashed concrete, from which crushed bodies protruded.

Fanning safety fears in the crime-hit capital, the United Nations said the main prison had collapsed, allowing some inmates to flee into a city where basic services and communications were shut down.

The earthquake was the latest tragedy to hammer Haiti, which has been scarred by years of unrest, crime, political tumult and natural disaster.

"They have had a long and tortured history, but they are good people, they are survivors," said former US president Bill Clinton, the UN envoy to Haiti.

"These people deserve a chance to bury their dead, to heal their wounded, to eat, to sleep, to begin to recover, and they can't do it with just government help alone," Clinton said, appealing on CNN for cash to buy aid.

Tuesday's quake struck just below the earth's surface on a notorious fault line, meaning the shock was intense and damage severe, scientists said.

UN officials said at least 16 of its staffers were dead, 56 were injured and a further 150 were missing. The head of the mission, Hedi Annabi, was thought to be among the dead.

US President Barack Obama vowed a swift and aggressive effort to save lives and spoke with an array of regional leaders to coordinate the aid operation.

"This tragedy seems especially cruel and incomprehensible," he said.

Officials said the first US search and rescue teams had arrived and were deploying into Port-au-Prince.

The aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson was due to arrive Thursday.

Officials said the US naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, home to a controversial camp for terror detainees, may also be used to house refugees.

Plane-loads of rescue teams and relief supplies were quickly dispatched from nations including Britain, Canada, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Russia and Spain.

The World Bank said it planned to extend an additional 100 million dollars in emergency aid to Haiti to help recovery and reconstruction.

The quake turned thousands of buildings into rubble. Among them was the UN mission headquarters and a major hotel where 200 tourists were missing.

Brazil said 11 of its peacekeepers were killed. Jordan reported that three of its peacekeepers died, while eight Chinese soldiers were buried in rubble and 10 were missing, state media said.

The Haitian resort town of Jacmel was also devastated.

"I was driving back to Jacmel in the mountains when the entire mountain seemed to fall down all around me," said Emmet Murphy, local head of the US non-governmental organization ADCI/VOCA.

Source: AFP

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