With buildings constructed like parking structures, the earthquake in Haiti turned six-story Port-au-Prince hotels into one-story piles of rubble. With little heavy machinery or even simple tools to free survivors, dead bodies are everywhere and piling up.
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — By Thursday, the bodies had begun piling up on the streets. Where on Wednesday there were one or two, by Thursday afternoon there were several, sometimes dozens in a single spot. It became common to see people carrying bodies through the streets, pickup trucks loaded with bodies on their beds, people pushing bodies in wheelbarrows.
In the hillside neighborhood of Petionville, men snaked down a street with a coffin on their shoulders, dancing and singing.
On a major downtown street, a man sat on a block of broken concrete, wailing. Nearby lay the body of a woman, covered in a red blanket.
Hundreds of bodies lay in the parking lot of the morgue at the General Hospital, waiting for families to identify them and take them away. Few have the financial means to bury them.
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So many bodies, and so little help.
People stepped past the bodies quickly, holding limes to their noses to block the stench.
With no food, water or medical assistance in sight, a sense of chaos and urgency could be felt throughout Haiti’s capital two days after a magnitude-7.0 earthquake.
There were some signs that an international aid effort was under way.
A U.S. rescue crew from Virginia combed through the wreckage of the U.N. mission headquarters in what had been the six-story Hotel Christophe, now a one-story pile of debris. Using an excavator and crane, the Americans, along with a Chinese rescue crew, were able to find about a dozen survivors.
The U.S. rescuers next went to the Hotel Montana, a nexus for the international community in Port-au-Prince.
Most Haitians saw none of this. For the poor, the desperate, the bereaved, there was little help.
In Petionville, clots of men gathered to peek into openings of the fallen Digicel building. All they could see is a woman’s arm, not moving, pinned by a girder.
For a country that has never been able to provide proper burials for its destitute, burying the estimated 45,000 to 50,000 may be Haiti’s greatest challenge.
“You can’t dig 50,000 graves,” said Thomas Ewald, head of an elite rescue unit that arrived in Haiti on Thursday.
No heavy machinery
Remarkably, for a metropolitan area of several million people, heavy machinery is almost nonexistent. Most people don’t even have picks or hammers. In the absence of tools, they resorted to using the rubble itself and pieces of rebar — or just their hands — to dig through thick slabs of concrete.
Most buildings in Port-au-Prince were built like cheap parking structures, with columns holding up big slabs of concrete, with thin cinderblock walls. When they fell, they became unforgiving mountains to dig through. Offices, apartments, schoolrooms, all crushed down to mere inches.
Tens of thousands of people were erecting tents of sheets on any piece of open ground. In the park across the street from the wrecked National Palace, Haiti’s equivalent of the White House, a refugee camp grew. Playground equipment became makeshift dwellings. Men and women who had lost almost everything strung blankets over slides and monkey bars, and then squatted in place, lest someone swipe their tiny spots.
Mivesa Antoine huddled with three sons — ages 3, 5 and 10 — and what was now the sum total of his worldly possessions: one plate, one spoon, one cup and half a bag of rice. “I was a businessman; I sold sodas,” Antoine said. “Now I have nothing.”
Moving the bodies
Relatives were moving their dead across the city in coffins borne on shoulders. A crew of men with shirts wrapped around their faces lurched down the block in a converted school bus stacked with corpses.
At a partially collapsed funeral home, the open carport held 20 bodies. Just outside the chaotic General Hospital was an especially gruesome pile of corpses, bloated from the sun.
“We are all alone. We don’t have any contact with anyone. No phones. No help. We beg for the Americans to come help us. Look at us!” said Jules Hector, a neighbor of Pauline Paul, who was being carried to the hospital on a broken door.
On St. Martin Street in central Port-au-Prince, men chipped at the heap of sagging concrete that was once a Methodist church and school. The percussion of their blows could not drown out Exellent Fontus’ wails.
“My mother is in there!” she cried. “My mother is dying.”
Fontus stamped her feet and flapped her arms. She sobbed, and no amount of consoling could calm her. Her mother, Issionese Fontus, had gone to the little teal-trimmed church for a Bible-reading session. It took her daughter a full day to pick through the debris-strewn streets to reach the church, where she fears her mother will be entombed.
“No one could have survived this,” a man said as he plunged back into the concrete pile.
Along L’Ouverture Boulevard, named for the leader of Haiti’s revolution, some people were trying to escape. Lines of cars and trucks, three or four abreast in a two-lane thoroughfare, crawled at a noisy snail’s pace.
Stranded in the interminable, fume-choked jams were overcrowded buses and trucks with sheet-wrapped corpses in the back. Vehicles were stacked high with salvaged goods, mostly mattresses, bundles of clothing, a suitcase or two, as Haitians fled the city.
The nearly complete collapse of the country’s communications network made it difficult to know what conditions awaited the refugees as headed to the Haitian countryside or smaller cities. But given how close the quake’s epicenter was to Port-au-Prince, it seemed reasonable to expect that the situation might be better elsewhere.
For most people, fleeing was not an option.
Haitians were sleeping under tarps in Place Canape Vert, still wary of what the Earth might do. In a country that has seen horrific spates of violence, this carnage was unprecedented.
No government help
They were furious, though not surprised, that they were left to themselves to dig out the trapped, haul off the dead, beg for help for the dying.
Hubert Benjamin, 59, blamed his own government and figured it would squander any international aid it got.
“I know if they give it to them to give to the Haitians … I know already they won’t give it to us.
“Look at how many people die here on the ground. No one comes to see them. Right now there is still someone crying in a building down there.”
He led a reporter up a bank of rubble onto the roof of a collapsed school. A dozen men holed up in a cave with a small hand pick and a crowbar. The five floors of the school had sandwiched into one. In a little pocket of air between the layers, a woman was alive. They heard her knocking a rock against the concrete about 8 a.m. They started digging.
They found out her name, Emelen Marche. She was a young mother who had come to the school to pay her children’s tuition.
By 5 p.m., the men had been working for seven hours in the muggy heat, gathering flies and the nauseous smell of decomposing corpses. Two bodies were bloating up on the basketball court 20 yards away, a man was sprawled on the roof just a few feet away, and in another hole in the roof, the top half of a man lay crushed by a girder, still wearing his spectacles.
Marche, the young mother, appeared likely to make it. The men gave her water and food through the hole. Jean Eddy Fleurantin took his turn with the pick. A young boy came down with a rusty hacksaw to cut through rebar.
She was talking. “Don’t do that!” she would yell, when their strikes with the pick came too close to her hand.
As the sun set behind the mountains, and total darkness approached, a reporter asked when they thought she might come out.
“That’s in God’s hands,” Fleurantin said.
Material from The Washington Post and Miami Herald is included in this report.