Death toll climbs to 82 in Haitian school collapse

PORT-AU-PRINCE (Reuters) - The death toll in the collapse of a ramshackle school in Haiti rose to at least 82 on Saturday when rescue workers uncovered a room with 21 dead, many of them children, officials said.

The disaster struck as impoverished Haiti recovered 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 on the outskirts of Port-of Prince, the Haitian capital, to find survivors in the rubble of the three-story La Promesse school, which caved in on Friday while class was in session.

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.

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.

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

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.”

At least 124 people were injured. Officials said 700 children were enrolled at the school, but it was not known how many were in the building when it collapsed.

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

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“It really breaks your heart to see those children under the debris without being able to help them,” Preval said. “As a father it is devastating to see such a disaster.”

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.

Rescue workers from the French Caribbean island of Martinique joined U.N. peacekeepers to help Haiti police and civil protection workers.

More than 9,000 multinational troops and police make up a U.N. peacekeeping force sent to stabilize Haiti after its former president was driven out in a bloody rebellion in 2004.

“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.”

Writing by Jim Loney; Editing by Xavier Briand