Hell in Haiti: Haitians scour ruined capital in vain search for survivors

Death toll could reach 50,000, warns stunned president as Red Cross flies in body bags amid fears of cholera epidemic

Survivors caked in blood and dust crawled out of the debris of collapsed homes. Corpses recovered from the rubble were piled up under sheets in the streets and passers-by lifted them to check for loved ones. Shocked men and women walked the streets or gathered in public squares to pray and sing hymns.

With many buildings turned to rubble and thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of casualties, Haiti pleaded with the world for help yesterday after the biggest earthquake to hit the impoverished Caribbean island nation for more than 200 years. The country's President declared that the scale of the devastation was "unimaginable" and last night said he had been told that between 30,000 and 50,000 people had been killed.

The quake measured 7.0 on the Richter scale, and struck 10 miles south-west of the capital, Port-au-Prince, at 4.53pm on Tuesday. It lasted for 45 seconds, flattening entire areas of the city, knocking out electricity supplies and phone lines, and sparking dozens of small fires. Between 20 and 30 aftershocks, some of them as severe as 6.0, have already hit the island, and experts warned they could continue for days.

"Parliament has collapsed," said the stunned President, Rene Préval. "The tax office has collapsed. Schools have collapsed. Hospitals have collapsed. There are a lot of schools that now have a lot of dead people in them. All of the hospitals are packed with people. It is a catastrophe."

The disaster struck poor and privileged alike. Mr Préval's palace was destroyed, along with the city's smartest hotel. Whole areas of sprawling hillside slums where most of Port-au-Prince's two million inhabitants live were flattened. "This is a disaster," said the country's first lady, Elisabeth Préval. "The general hospital has collapsed. We need support. We need help. We need engineers."

Official estimates say that "thousands" have already been killed, and a leading Haitian senator, Youri Latortue, said deaths may eventually reach half a million. The number of bodies is expected to pose a problem and the World Health Organisation has sent specialists to help clear the city of corpses to prevent the spread of disease. The Red Cross is sending a plane today loaded mainly with body bags.

Karel Zelenka, of the Catholic charity Cafod in Haiti, emailed from Port-au-Prince warning colleagues to prepare for the worst: "People have been screaming and praying all over the place throughout the night. We should be prepared for thousands and thousands of dead and injured." Monsignor Joseph Serge Miot, the Catholic Archbishop of Port-au-Prince, was among those killed.

A spokesman for the Red Cross said three million people, or just under a third of Haiti's entire population of around 10 million, have been affected. But rescue operations are being badly hindered by damage to infrastructure, and the headquarters and offices of many aid organisations are simply no longer standing.

One of the collapsed buildings is Haiti's UN mission. Between 100 and 150 people were inside the former hotel when the quake struck. The UN's peacekeeping chief, Alain Le Roy, said that fewer than 10 people, "some dead, some alive", had been recovered. Last night President Préval confirmed that UN mission chief Hedi Annabi, a Tunisian diplomat, was among the dead. The UN confirmed that at least 140 members of its staff had died.

The British charity Christian Aid has also lost its local HQ. "Our office has fallen down," said Judith Turbyne, who represents the agency in the region. " It's a fairly robust house, and the fact that it went down gives you an indication of the scale of the damage elsewhere."

Much of the urgently needed medical infrastructure is also in ruins. Médecins Sans Frontières said all three of its major facilities in Haiti have been put out of action, with one collapsing completely. "The level of care we can provide without this infrastructure is limited," said Paul McPhun, one of the charity's operations managers.

"On the streets we are getting mobbed by crowds of people. They just want help, and anybody with a car is better off than they are. We are seeing severe trauma, head wounds and crushed limbs."

Last night the American Red Cross said its Haiti operation had distributed all the medical equipment and supplies it held and had now run out.

Even a developed nation would be damaged by an earthquake measuring 7.0 on the Richter scale, particularly if it occurred, like Tuesday's, at a relatively shallow depth of just six miles. But in Haiti, the poorest nation in the western hemisphere, and where half the nation lives on less than a dollar a day, the effects of any natural disaster are magnified. The country is already almost totally reliant on foreign aid, with 9,000 UN peacekeepers permanently stationed there, and 80 per cent of its inhabitants already live below the poverty line. In November 2008, after a school collapsed in the wealthy district of Pétionville, the Mayor of Port-au-Prince estimated that 60 per cent of the city's buildings were shoddily built and unsafe.

At a destroyed four-storey apartment building, a teenage girl was shown standing on a car, trying to peer inside while several men pulled at a foot sticking from rubble. She said her family was inside. "The whole city is in darkness. You have thousands of people sitting in the streets with nowhere to go," said Rachmani Domersant, of the Food for the Poor charity. "There are people running, crying, screaming. People are trying to dig victims out with flashlights."

There were fears last night that Port-au-Prince may not be the only area devastated by the quake. "Jacmel is a disaster zone," said Emmet Murphy, of US charity ACDI/VOCA, referring to a town about 25 miles from the capital. "Many houses are collapsed or severely damaged, and we fear many people have perished."

Port-au-Prince's airport, though damaged, was still usable, and last night a huge relief operation was under way around the world, with tons of emergency medical equipment, sniffer dogs, high-energy biscuits and much else being loaded on to planes. A British aid flight with 64 firefighters and rescue dogs was on its way after being temporarily delayed by bad weather. The World Health Organisation was sending specialists to help with the urgent disposal of bodies. The US said a 2,000-strong Marine unit was expected to be in the air soon.

Haiti: At a glance

* The Caribbean nation of 9 million is a former French colony and the world's oldest black republic.

* It is the poorest country in the Americas with an annual per-capita income of $560. Around eight in ten people live on less $2 a day.

* Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a Catholic priest, became Haiti's first freely elected leader in 1990. He was ousted by a military coup in 1991, reinstated with US backing, and then forced into exile by a rebellion in 2004.

* Haiti has been led by President René Preval since May 2006, when the country returned to constitutional rule.

Eyewitness: Tales from the epicentre

"When the earthquake struck, I was driving down the mountain. Our truck was being tossed to and fro like a toy, and when it stopped, I looked out the windows to see buildings 'pancaking'. People poured out into the streets, crying, carrying bloody bodies, looking for anyone who could help them. We piled as many bodies as we could into the back of our truck, and took them down the hill with us, hoping to find medical attention. All of them were scared, bleeding and terrified. The children, and hundreds of neighbours, are sleeping in our playground area tonight. Occasionally, there is another tremor and all of the people cry out and the children are terrified."

Bob Poff, Salvation Army in Haiti

"At Christmas we'd all breathed a collective sign of relief; we were so grateful to have got through the hurricane season without a major disaster. People were looking forward to the carnival, just a couple of weeks away. Then the quake struck. The city is a mess; it looks like a war zone. Then there's the issue of clean water: it's a problem in Haiti under the best of circumstances, it will have only been exacerbated. Another of the challenges is to keep hope. People are in shock. They are walking around, shaking their heads and saying 'What next?' In Haiti, we seem to make good progress and then something happens and reverses it.

Magalie Boyer, World Vision aid worker

"I was in the intensive care room looking after a nine-month-old baby girl when the earthquake hit. The floor started shaking violently and the whole building shook from side to side. It lasted about 45 seconds. After that, there was a constant shuddering. The babies were really frightened and started to cry. Other staff and carers were screaming, they were so terrified. It was very upsetting."

Susan Westwood, Paediatric nurse in Port-au-Prince

"This is an earthquake unlike anything Haiti has ever experienced. I cannot stress enough what a human disaster this is, and idle hands will only make this tragedy worse. We must act now. The US military is the only group trained and prepared to offer that assistance. They must do so as soon as possible. The international community must also rise to the occasion and help the Haitian people in every way possible."

Wyclef Jean, Haitian-born rap star

"The sun is about to come up. The aftershocks continue. There is no way to even begin to share the things we've heard and seen since 5pm on Tuesday. To do so would take hours that we don't have right now. Some of them feel wrong to tell; like only God should know these personal horrible tragedies. Thousands of people are trapped. Precious lives hang in the balance. When pulled from the rubble there is no place to take them for care; Haiti has an almost non-existent medical-care system. I cannot imagine what the next few weeks and months will be like. I am afraid for everyone."

Troy Livesay, Haiti resident

How you can help

The Disasters Emergency Committee – the umbrella organisation for 13 aid agencies including the British Red Cross and Oxfam – has launched an emergency appeal to help the victims of the Haiti earthquake. If you would like to make a donation, please call 0370 60 60 900 or visit www.dec.org.uk

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