Death toll passes 90 in Haiti school collapse

Sat Nov 8, 2008 7:21pm EST

(Updates death toll, adds arrest of owner)

By Joseph Guyler Delva

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Nov 8 (Reuters) - The death toll in the collapse of a ramshackle school in Haiti rose above 90 on Saturday after rescue workers uncovered a room full of dead, many of them children, officials said.

Civil protection service head Alta Jean-Baptiste said there were 84 people confirmed dead and 150 injured as of noon. Another civil protection official, Michel Joseph Jr., said he had seen eight more bodies, bringing the count to 92.

"We haven't been able to get them out yet," Joseph said as rescue workers arrived from the United States and the French Caribbean island of Martinique to help the ill-equipped and impoverished country and U.N. peacekeepers posted there search for survivors.

Officials said 700 children were enrolled at the three-story La Promesse school, but it was not known how many were in the building when it caved in on Friday while class was in session.

The disaster struck as the poorest country in the Americas struggled to recover from four tropical storms and hurricanes that killed more than 800 people and destroyed 60 percent of its crops in August and September.

Rescuers worked frantically at the school site on the outskirts of Port-of Prince, the Haitian capital, bringing in a crane to lift blocks of concrete. Firefighters from Virginia and rescue workers from Martinique brought sniffer dogs. The search was set to continue for a second night.

MINISTER ARRESTED

President Rene Preval said the church school had been built with hardly any structural steel or cement to hold its concrete blocks together. Debris crushed neighboring residences in the Nerettes community.

The owner of the school and church, Protestant minister Fortin Augustin, was arrested.

"He told me he built the building all by himself. He said he didn't need an engineer because he had good knowledge of construction," said prosecutor Joseph Manes Louis, adding that Augustin stated he had once worked on construction sites as a foreman.

Preval, who was at the scene on Saturday, said searchers dropped water and biscuits through gaps in the rubble overnight to children and focused their efforts on reaching them.

"Last night we were sure there were still seven children alive. We got one of them but we have lost all signs of the other six being alive," Preval said. "Some say they might be sleeping. Others believe they have died."

As Preval spoke, a rescue worker told him a room full of new victims, mostly students, had been discovered. Officials later said at least 21 bodies were in the room.

At least 35 students, 13 girls and 22 boys, were pulled from the rubble alive overnight.

'WE'VE BEEN EVERYWHERE'

Two of Chimene Rene's children were found alive, but two sons, Stevenson Casamajor, 13, and Jeff Casamajor, 15, were still missing.

"We've been everywhere. We've been to the hospital, we've been everywhere looking for them," she said. "It seems there is no more hope now because it seems that nobody will come out alive from the rubble."

Crowds of screaming and crying parents searched for their children in the ruins, and roads around the school were so jammed with people that some rescuers had to be brought in by helicopter.

A rescue worker said the dead included an entire philosophy class with the exception of one girl who was alive because she had asked for permission to leave to use the bathroom just before the collapse.

"It is a tragedy, particularly when it involves children," U.N. mission chief Hedi Annabi said. "I share their sorrow and express my profound sympathy to the relatives of the victims."

More than 9,000 multinational troops and police make up the U.N. peacekeeping force sent to stabilize Haiti after its former president was driven out in a bloody rebellion in 2004. (Writing by Jim Loney and Michael Christie; Editing by Xavier Briand)