January 16, 2010 / 5:13 PM / in 8 years

Haiti rescuers dig for survivors in destroyed store

PORT-AU-PRINCE (Reuters) - U.S. and Turkish urban rescue teams in Haiti battled on Saturday to reach survivors from Tuesday’s earthquake trapped but still alive inside a collapsed 5-storey supermarket in Port-au-Prince.

They could hear two distinct groups of people deep inside the sandwiched rubble of the Caribe Market which had completely collapsed, burying dozens of shoppers who were inside when the magnitude 7.0 quake struck.

Rescuers were talking to a 17-year-old girl called Ariel and a boy with her, who said they were unhurt but thirsty.

“We’ve found a boy and a girl and we’re trying to get them out, we’ve been cutting holes since Thursday evening,” said Charles McDermott, spokesman for a U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) rescue team from Florida.

He said up to five people were reported to be still alive in the wrecked supermarket located in the capital’s Delmas neighborhood, one of the worst hit by the massive earthquake that killed tens of thousands in the poor Caribbean state.

“We’re working on the boy and girl because we can talk to them ... they say they’re fine, they just need water,” McDermott said. “They can see sunlight, and at night they can see lights from a radio tower, we just can’t see them.”

Across the impoverished city, residents and rescue teams have been clawing at wrecked homes and buildings with their hands and basic tools in a desperate search for survivors among the dead.

The supermarket’s manager Samer Tahmoush estimated that on a typical Tuesday around the time when the quake struck there would have been around 75 to 100 shoppers inside.

He said many of his staff had managed to run out fast enough and escape being buried. Many others too had been pulled out quickly from the rubble by rescuers.

But Tahmoush said he knew that a number of his employees -- cashiers and bag packers -- were buried under the wreckage.

COLLAPSED LIKE PANCAKE

The supermarket, one of the biggest in Port-au-Prince, had completely collapsed on itself, its upper layers falling on those below like a squeezed concertina.

Crushed supermarket trolleys were visible between the sandwiched layers of concrete. Also visible were green and orange supermarket shelving and scattered debris and wares like tea bags, cat food, kitchenware, electronic goods and children’s toys, toilet rolls and bathroom sponges.

“We’ve had to cut through three floors from above, we’ve been digging through concrete floors, shelving, food, and everything else you would find in a supermarket,” said Jose ‘Paco’ Mendia from the FEMA Florida rescue team.

“It’s a really consolidated collapse, what we call a pancake collapse,” he added.

“The best time to get somebody back is within 96 hours, but if they have access to food and water, they could survive longer,” he said. It was believed that some of those trapped deep inside might be able to reach food and water near them.

Mendia believes the damage and destruction to Haiti from the earthquake would be more severe and lasting than the impact of Hurricane Katrina on New Orleans in 2005.

“It’s a lot bigger than Katrina, because there are no resources here. In Louisiana, they are still rebuilding five years later. Probably, if you come here in 10 years time, you are still going to see structures like this,” he said of the destroyed supermarket.

Haitian authorities have already estimated that three-quarters of Port-au-Prince will have to be rebuilt.

Crowds of onlookers, including anxious relatives of those trapped inside the supermarket, milled around the collapsed building, later kept back by U.N. peacekeepers.

Editing by Pascal Fletcher

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