Under the glare of floodlights, rescue workers dug through the rubble of a collapsed school yesterday in a frantic search for more than 200 people who they thought may still be trapped. Haiti remains in a state of shock following the disaster that has killed at least 92 people, mainly children.
It is not known exactly how many pupils were in the school when it collapsed on Friday, but authorities said 500 youngsters could on some days be crowded into the three-storey concrete building of Collège La Promesse, which housed classes from nursery through to secondary school.
Four children, two girls aged three and five, and two boys, one aged seven and the other a teenager, were yesterday pulled out of the wreckage alive, although the extent of their injuries was not known.
The apparently chaotic rescue effort by Red Cross workers, UN peacekeepers and Haitian authorities was inhibited by thousands of grieving neighbours, who blocked the steep, narrow street and fought with officials to enter the collapsed building in search of their children and friends.
Yesterday it seemed it could be further hampered by extreme weather. What had been tropical storm Paloma strengthened into an "extremely dangerous" hurricane that pounded the Cayman Islands and headed toward Cuba. While not in the direct path of the storm, Haiti could expect to be hit by rain and high winds.
That is the last thing UN peacekeepers and Haitian police need as they try to establish some order by setting up checkpoints along the road in the hills above Port-au-Prince. But they have been unable to get heavy equipment through the crowds and to the scene, leaving rescuers to work with their hands.
At least 39 bodies were brought to the morgue at Port-au-Prince's General Hospital, said Haitian police spokesman Garry Desrosier. Another eight people died in a trauma centre run by the aid group Médecins sans Frontières, its spokesman François Servranckx said. More than 80 others were being treated for injuries by the aid group. Several nearby houses were also damaged in the collapse.
Neighbours suspected the building was poorly rebuilt after it partially collapsed eight years ago, said Jimmy Germain, a French teacher at the school. He said people who lived just downhill abandoned their land out of fear that the building would tumble on to them, and that the school's owner tried to buy up their empty properties. The concrete building's third storey was still under construction, and Petionville's mayor, Claire Lydie Parent, told the Associated Press she suspects a structural defect caused the collapse, not the recent chain of tropical storms that swept devastation across Haiti. Police commissioner Francene Moreau says the minister who runs the church-operated school could face criminal charges. Efforts to reach the preacher yesterday were not successful.
The UN military commander, Major-General Carlos Alberto Dos Santos Cruz, said the accident is the worst he has seen since coming to Haiti almost two years ago. The building collapsed into little more than a twisted mountain of concrete, out of which protruded the bodies of children killed in the collapse.
Thousands looked on from beside the school and across the valley, cheering each time a live pupil was extricated from the debris. One child who emerged and was lifted on to a stretcher cried and made the sign of the cross over and over. Outside on the street, a swelling crowd erupted with wails and prayers as the injured were carried away and emergency vehicles raced up a winding hill to the school. "My child, my child!" one mother yelled.
"There are no words for this," the local mayor said as the search for survivors intensified. Haiti's President, René Préval, visited the scene to offer support. He asked onlookers to come down from surrounding buildings that engineers feared might have been destabilised by the collapse.
Parents said they toiled endlessly throughout the year to afford the school's £960 annual tuition fees in the hope of helping their children to escape poverty. The Dominican Republic, which shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti, was sending two helicopters to help, its Health Minister, Bautista Rojas, said. France's Foreign Minister, Bernard Kouchner, promised to send a rescue team as soon as possible.
Haiti, the poorest country in the western hemisphere, has been struggling to recover from widespread riots over rising food prices and several recent hurricanes and tropical storms that killed nearly 800 people.
Hurricane warning: Paloma hits Cayman Islands – Cuba is next
Cuba was bracing itself last night for the arrival of Hurricane Paloma, which blasted across the Cayman Islands yesterday, forcing people to seek safety in shelters. The category four storm had top wind speeds of nearly 140mph and brought an estimated 10ins of rain over the Cayman Islands, a British overseas territory and major banking centre. Cuba is still recovering from Hurricanes Ike and Gustav, which caused billions of pounds of damage earlier this year. A Royal Navy ship is on its way to the region, and will provide humanitarian assistance if needed.