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American James Girly, 64, is brought out alive from a destroyed building of the Montana Hotel where he was trapped for 50 hours in Port-au-Prince. (NICHOLAS KAMM)
American James Girly, 64, is brought out alive from a destroyed building of the Montana Hotel where he was trapped for 50 hours in Port-au-Prince. (NICHOLAS KAMM)

On the ground

Time running out in desperate city Add to ...

Port-au-Prince is a city of soft cries.

In a park turned refugee camp, a young mother empties a can of formula for her infant girl and quietly wonders where she will find the child's next meal.

A woman hawking vegetables rushes toward a vehicle. Raising her greens high in the air and getting ready to make her pitch, she instead wails, "My God, my God," and then weeps, abandoning the chase.

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Even the bodies strewn on every other block seem to be calling for help. A dead schoolgirl lies against a fallen metal gate with her arms spread wide, calling silently for the embrace of her mother. But her mother, too, is dead. So there is no hug, and nobody to claim the girl's decomposing remains.

Two days after an earthquake destroyed this city, Haitians remained calm as they went about the grim business of survival. With food, water and gas supplies dwindling and little sign of the promised international aid, the city's shell-shocked citizens wonder if the soft cry will soon turn into a roar.

"The loss is general, the pain is global, the entire population is psychologically damaged," said Elsie Pothet Ovile, a pediatrician at the Clinique St. Esprit, where 11 bodies, including those of two toddlers, were lined up outside.

"We need everything: water, food, antibiotics, masks, painkillers, psychological treatment, disinfectant, gloves. If it doesn't get here soon, I don't know what might happen."

In the city's devastated core, there are fleeting signs of help from the outside world, but little evidence of a broad-based relief effort. Doctors from Médecins sans frontières are at work in the refugee camp set up in the park; trucks bearing UN and Red Cross markings race up and down the shattered streets; a Mountie goes by on patrol.

A block away from the clinic, a muffled call from the rubble goes almost unnoticed, at first.

Kneeling before a collapsed bank, Jerry Lespérance peers into a tiny gap where the first floor used to be, and concludes against all the evidence that his brother, a bank teller, is alive.

He calls into the wreckage and is convinced he got an answer, even though no one around him is able to hear it.

Then, from the sagging remains of the building, a dusty hand, then a defiant fist, thrusts from the jumble of smashed concrete.

"Did you see? Did you see?" Mr. Lespérance yells, falling against a stunned foreigner kneeling next to him. A dangerous, improvised rescue mission begins beneath the teetering wreckage. Haiti may be running out of food, water and gas, but will, fearlessness and no small amount of ingenuity remain.

For two hours, 20 young men risk their lives crawling beneath the bank, where the collapsing four upper floors have driven the main level right into the ground. The men pull out chunks of concrete one at a time.

Marc-André Domond finally crawls out on his stomach, covered in dust but still wearing his banker's uniform. "Glory to God!" the 26-year-old yells before being whisked away in a vehicle by his brother. A battered policeman follows him out, and is also taken away.

A few blocks up the street from the cheering crowd, the bodies at the Clinique St. Esprit are loaded on makeshift stretchers made from rusty corrugated tin and taken to the city morgue, where hundreds of corpses are stacked in the open air out front. Municipal officials are preparing a mass grave near the city dump.

In the morning, one must be near a dead body to smell the unmistakable stench of rot. By the end of the hot, sunny day, the smell of death permeates the city.

Down from the bank on rue Capois, the filth grows from thousands taking refuge in the Port-au-Prince park, the Champs de Mars. Hundreds of the homeless have begun to defecate on old Styrofoam plates and takeout dishes, presumably to make cleanup a bit easier. The desperate grasp at propriety only highlights the oncoming public health catastrophe.

The park sits in the shadows of the crushed Presidential Palace and the collapsed National Cathedral, where sparkling morning light dances through what remains of the stained glass in the huge round windows.

But in at least one spot on rue Capois, a 10-minute walk away, people are cheering and a rare rescue mission has succeeded.

"It's the first miracle we've seen here in a long, long time," says Luis Modelet, a 57-year-old retiree whose house was flattened, alluding to Haiti's long troubled past.

But there's only so much room for hope, and the miracles are running out.

Several other people are alive inside. But those unlucky souls are trapped far from the tiny hole opened by the rescuers. The same young men now shift their attention to the bank, where they sift through rubble looking for valuables while bank officials and police shout at them, to no effect.

Yvenidi Baker is convinced her husband, Jerson Bouloute, is among those trapped. He had gone to the bank to make a withdrawal when the earthquake hit. "Maybe he is dead," she says, as those who have been rescued depart. "Don't say that," a friend says consolingly.

With four floors looming over the doomed survivors, not much else can be done without serious technical help.

"It's going to take a structural engineer and equipment to dismantle the building piece by piece," says Jean-Louis Serge, a mechanic who runs a tiny shop across the street. "Do you see any structural engineers around here?"

After the crowd moves away, a woman calls out from somewhere in the bowels of the bank. Her soft cry can barely be heard.

THE NUMBERS

  • 50,000 Estimated number of dead, according to the Haitian Red Cross
  • 3 million Number requiring aid, ranging from food and shelter to clean water
  • $272-million Approximate amount pledged in aid by the international community, including $100-million from the United States
  • 40 Number of international search-and-rescue teams heading for Haiti

LOGISTICAL CHALLENGE

Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, presents unique challenges for aid workers even in the best of times. It shares an island with the Dominican Republic, meaning that aid must arrive by sea or air. Haitian roads are in poor condition under normal circumstances, and even if aid reaches the Dominican Republic, the road to Port-au-Prince is narrow and easily blocked. In addition, Haiti was already heavily damaged by a series of severe hurricanes, the most recent in 2008.

THE AID BOTTLNECK

Even before it has properly begun, the massive international air- and sea-lift of aid to Haiti is struggling to overcome serious bottlenecks caused by damaged airports, port facilities and roads, and aid agencies fear the crucial 72-hour window to find survivors will be missed if help does not start getting through. The airport at Port-au-Prince was briefly closed yesterday as there was no room to park the aircraft and no fuel for the return flights.

TREATING THE INJURED

With almost no heavy equipment anywhere in the country, Haitians clawed at chunks of concrete with bare hands and sledgehammers in a desperate attempt to free those buried alive. Severe damage to at least eight Port-au-Prince hospitals made it nearly impossible to treat the thousands of injured or prevent outbreaks of disease. At the main hospital in the capital, medical treatment was being provided by two exhausted physicians.

BURYING THE DEAD

Bodies lay in the streets all around Port-au-Prince, with more than 1,000 corpses lying outside the main hospital, transforming a place of healing into a makeshift morgue. Armed with alcohol-dipped rags to dampen the stench, waves of distraught Haitians moved from corpse to corpse in search of loved ones. People were burying their dead on hillsides, prompting Brazil to propose building an emergency cemetery, with a promise that it would respect the voodoo beliefs of much of the population.

MAINTAINING SECURITY

Gunfire has been heard in the streets and the desperate situation has aid groups fearing a surge in lawlessness. The UN's 9,000-member peacekeeping force is patrolling the streets, but it has suffered deaths and injuries of its own and has not been completely effective at controlling looting. Parliament, the national palace, and many government buildings collapsed and it is not clear how many of those in authority survived. The main prison collapsed, allowing criminals to escape.

Staff and news services





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