As aftershocks continued to shake the devastated capital, Port-au-Prince, residents tried to rescue people trapped under rubble, clawing at chunks of concrete with bare hands.
Tens of thousands wandered dazed and sobbing in the chaotic, broken streets, hoping desperately for assistance.
One young man yelled at reporters in English: “Too many people are dying. We need international help … no emergency, no food, no phone, no water, no nothing.”
Bodies were visible all around the hilly city: under rubble, lying beside roads, being loaded into trucks.
Asked by a CNN reporter how many people had died, President Rene Preval replied, “I don’t know,” adding, “Up to now, I heard 50,000 … 30,000.”
Preval did not say where the estimates came from.
The local Red Cross — used to dealing with disaster in a country long dogged by poverty, catastrophic natural disasters and political instability — said it was overwhelmed.
The poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, Haiti is ill-equipped to respond to such a disaster, lacking sufficient emergency personnel and heavy equipment to move debris.
A five-story U.N. headquarters building was destroyed by Tuesday’s 7.0 magnitude quake, which the U.S. Geological Survey said was the most powerful in Haiti in more than a century.
The United Nations said at least 16 members of its 9,000-strong peacekeeping mission, including 11 Brazilian soldiers, had been killed. Preval said mission chief Hedi Annabi was dead, but the world body could not confirm that.
The presidential palace lay in ruins, its domes fallen on top of flattened walls. Preval and his wife were not inside when the quake hit.
Preval called the damage “unimaginable” and described stepping over dead bodies and hearing the cries of those trapped in the collapsed Parliament building, where the Senate president was among those pinned by debris.
‘SO MUCH DEVASTATION’
“It’s the worst I’ve ever seen. It’s so much devastation in a concentrated area. It’s going to take days, or weeks, to dig out,” the Salvation Army’s director of disaster services in Haiti, Bob Poff, told CNN.
Frustration was rising among Haitians faced with the prospect of spending a second night out in the open with no food or water, Poff said.
When darkness descended over the city, most of it devoid of power, the sound of loud singing rose up, as people turned to traditional hymns to try to keep their spirits up.
Lone men with sledgehammers battered at slabs of debris in collapsed buildings, trying to break through to look for survivors.
Scattered bodies were laid out on sidewalks, wrapped neatly in sheets and blankets. Voices cried out from the rubble.
“Please take me out, I am dying. I have two children with me,” a woman told a Reuters journalist from under a collapsed kindergarten in the Canape-Vert area of the capital.
The quake’s epicentre was only 10 miles (16 km) from Port-au-Prince. About 4 million people live in and around the city and many slept outside on the ground, away from weakened walls, as aftershocks as powerful as 5.9 magnitude rattled the city. One strong aftershock sent guests running in panic from the already damaged Villa Creole hotel on Wednesday afternoon.
Haitian Red Cross spokesman Pericles Jean-Baptiste said his organisation was overwhelmed and out of medicine. “There are too many people who need help. … We lack equipment, we lack body bags,” he told Reuters.
Normal communications were cut off, roads were blocked by rubble and trees, electric power was interrupted and water was in short supply. The only lights visible in the city came from solar-powered traffic signals.
RESCUERS EN ROUTE
U.S. President Barack Obama called the quake an “especially cruel and incomprehensible” tragedy and pledged swift, coordinated support to help save lives. The Pentagon was sending an aircraft carrier and three amphibious ships, including one that can carry up to 2,000 Marines.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton cut short a trip to the Pacific and Defence Secretary Robert Gates cancelled plans to visit Australia to deal with the earthquake response. Reuters