Vital hours for rescuers as supplies trickle in

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The Independent US

Rescue workers and relief supplies from around the world began trickling into the Haitian capital yesterday, more than two days after the earthquake struck. Experts fear thousands of people are still trapped under collapsed buildings and say the next three days will be crucial in determining if the race to save trapped survivors and help the injured can prevent the death toll rising even further.

"We have to get the key medical aid in by Friday at the latest or things will get even worse," said Pierre Salignon, director general of Medecins du Monde. "The first 48 to 72 hours are absolutely critical for saving lives. There are large numbers of people with very bad injuries who are still untreated because so many hospitals are down. We need to begin opening mobile clinics straight away and start treating the injured."

Those specialist rescue teams, armed with state-of-the-art equipment, which managed to land in the overwhelmed airport of the stricken Haitian capital, Port-au-Prince, began the grim task of locating survivors amid the rubble.

China's search team, most of whom are veterans of the recent earthquake in Sichuan, were the second national team to arrive in Haiti after Iceland, which managed to get its rescue personnel into Port-au-Prince on Wednesday evening.

But the Chinese barely had a chance to step onto Haitian soil before the huge logistical difficulties of operating within such an impoverished nation became apparent. In the absence of modern lifting equipment on the ground it took more than six hours to unload Beijing's aid contribution leading to bottlenecks and fears that Haiti's appalling infrastructure could buckle under the weight of such a large influx of aid.

Many search and rescue teams chose to fly to the Dominican Republic and cross into Haiti overland. The journey takes longer but allows for teams to bring in heavier equipment because the runway at Santo Domingo is much longer than that at Port-au-Prince.

A UN humanitarian affairs spokeswoman, Elisabeth Byrs, said more than 40 search and rescue teams from across the globe are travelling to Haiti. But not all have the heavy machinery needed to move rubble out of the way.

With little semblance of a working government or military operating in Haiti, it will now be up to the UN to co-ordinate the large number of international teams heading to the disaster zone, although they have been hampered by the fact that they lost so many staff when their headquarters collapsed.

Rapid-UK, a non-governmental disaster response charity, currently has two teams of rescue experts heading out to the area, the first of which arrived in Haiti yesterday afternoon.

"Following a disaster the overall co-ordination of the emergency response is done by a special UN team, or sometimes that country's military," said Graham Payne, Rapid-UK's chairman. "Once our teams get to Port-au-Prince they'll be told where they're needed and we'll get to work." Typically rescue teams will use sound locators, carbon detectors, sniffer dogs and snake-eye cameras to locate victims trapped underneath the rubble. They then have to begin the careful task of cutting their way to the victims whilst ensuring there is no further collapse of the building which could endanger the rescue team as well as those they are trying to save.

Urdur Gunnarsdottir, a spokesperson for Iceland's foreign ministry, said last night that their specialist team was sifting through the rubble of the "Caribbean Market", a four-storey shopping mall in the centre of Port-au-Prince which was one of the few places where luxury items could be bought in Haiti.

Rescue teams will have to work quickly. But those who have access to water can survive a remarkably long time. "It's amazing what we've seen," said Mr Payne. "If you have rain, burst water pipes or good condensation on the walls people can keep on surviving. If people are still being pulled out in a week's time the rescue teams will stay. If not, that's when the long-term development agencies step in." The lack of adequate hospitals will also play a crucial role in deciding whether the death toll continues to rise as people succumb to their wounds. At least eight of Port-au-Prince's hospitals have collapsed entirely.