PORT-AU-PRINCE (Reuters) - Tens of thousands of people were feared dead on Wednesday in Haiti’s catastrophic earthquake, buried beneath demolished schools, hospitals and homes, and traumatized citizens milled in streets strewn with rubble and scattered bodies.
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.”
But 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.
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 U.N. said at least 14 members of its 9,000-strong peacekeeping mission had been killed. Preval said mission chief Hedi Annabi was dead but the U.N. could not confirm that.
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.
Destruction in the capital was “massive and broad,” and tens — if not hundreds — of thousands of homes were destroyed, a spokesman for the U.N. mission said.
Scattered bodies were laid out on sidewalks, neatly wrapped 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 presidential palace lay in ruins, its domes fallen on top of flattened walls. Preval and his wife were not inside when the quake hit.
The quake’s epicenter was only 10 miles 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.
“We have a lot of people here that need help. They need food, water,” said Vanessa Charlamagne, 27, a Haitian-American lab technician visiting from Maryland, who spent the night with hundreds of others on the grass of a park near the palace.
“They spent the whole night praying and praying, it was like a nightmare,” Charlamagne said. An elderly woman died of apparent shock as she lay nearby in the park overnight, while another woman gave birth to a baby boy, she added.
Haitian Red Cross spokesman Pericles Jean-Baptiste said his organization 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.
The poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, Haiti is ill-equipped to respond to such a disaster, lacking heavy equipment to move debris and sufficient emergency personnel.
One of the city’s best-known hotels, the Montana, had collapsed, said Haitian businessman Manuel DeHeusch, a tile factory owner, who added the hotel owner, his aunt, had died buried in the rubble
“I am appealing to the world, especially the United States, to do what they did for us back in 2008 when four hurricanes hit Haiti,” Raymond Alcide Joseph, Haiti’s ambassador to Washington, said in a CNN interview.
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 said she had decided to cancel the remainder of her trip to the Pacific and to return to Washington because of the earthquake in Haiti.
Medical aid group Doctors Without Borders said its three hospitals in Haiti were too badly damaged to use, and it was treating the injured at temporary shelters.
“What we are seeing is severe traumas, head wounds, crushed limbs, severe problems that cannot be dealt with the level of medical care we currently have available,” said Paul McPhun, operations manager for the group’s Canadian section.
The University of Miami School of Medicine sent a plane full of doctors and nurses to set up a field hospital.
The World Bank pledged an additional $100 million. The United Nations said $10 million would be released immediately from the its central emergency response fund and it would organize a flash appeal to raise more money.
The United States, China and European states were sending reconnaissance and rescue teams, some with search dogs and heavy equipment, while other governments and aid groups offered tents, water purification units, food and telecoms teams.
The quake hit at 5 p.m. (2200 GMT), and witnesses reported people screaming “Jesus, Jesus” running into the streets as offices, hotels, houses and shops collapsed. Experts said the quake’s epicenter was very shallow at a depth of only 6.2 miles, which was likely to have magnified the destruction.
Witnesses saw homes and shanties built on hillsides tumble as the earth shook, while cars bounced off the ground.
Haiti’s cathedral was destroyed and media reports said the archbishop of Port-au-Prince, Monsignor Joseph Serge Miot, had been found dead in the wreckage of the archdiocese office.
Additional reporting by Jeff Mason, Adam Entous, Patrick Worsnip, Andrew Cawthorne, Louis Charbonneau Sophie Hardach, Raymond Colitt, Alister Bull and David Morgan; Writing by Jane Sutton, Pascal Fletcher and Tony Boadle; Editing by Eric Walsh