Untold numbers were still trapped under rubble.
A five-story UN headquarters building was also brought down by Tuesday night’s 7.0 magnitude quake, which the US Geological Survey said was the most powerful in Haiti in more than 200 years. Many casualties were feared in the UN building.
President Rene Preval called the damage “unimaginable” as officials believed hundreds of thousands were dead in the rubble across the impoverished capital.
Preval 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.
“There are a lot of schools that have a lot of dead people in them,” he said. “All of the hospitals are packed with people. It is a catastrophe.”
Preval’s wife, First Lady Elisabeth Preval, said she had seen corpses in the streets of Port-au-Prince and had heard the cries of victims still trapped in the rubble of the parliament building.
“I’m stepping over dead bodies. A lot of people are buried under buildings. The general hospital has collapsed. We need support. We need help. We need engineers,” she said.
Sobbing and dazed people wandered the streets of Port-au-Prince, and 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 epicentre was only 16km from Port-au-Prince. About four million people live in the city and surrounding area. Many people slept outside on the ground, away from weakened walls, as aftershocks as powerful as 5.9 rattled the city throughout the night and into yesterday.
The devastation crippled the government and the UN security and assistance mission which had kept order, and there were no signs of any organised rescue efforts.
Haitian Red Cross spokesman Pericles Jean-Baptiste said his organisation was overwhelmed. “There are too many people who need help... We lack equipment, we lack body bags,” he said.
Reports on casualties and damage were slow to emerge due to communication outages.
In New York, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said those unaccounted for at the UN mission headquarters included the chief of the mission, Hedi Annabi, but he could not confirm reports Annabi had died. He said 100 to 150 people were in the building when the quake struck.
Brazil’s army said at least 11 Brazilian members of the UN peacekeeping mission were killed and many soldiers were missing.
The poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, Haiti is ill-equipped to respond to such a disaster, lacking heavy equipment and sufficient emergency personnel.
“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.
“At that time the US dispatched... a hospital ship off the coast of Haiti. I hope that will be done again... and help us in this dire situation that we find ourselves in.”
US President Barack Obama said his “thoughts and prayers” were with the people of Haiti and pledged “unwavering support”.
In Geneva, UN officials said they expected the world body would issue an international emergency appeal for funds and other assistance, once needs on the ground had been assessed.
Germany was sending €1 million in immediate aid, and the EU’s executive European Commission pledged €3m of fast-track funding.
The US, Britain, Canada, France, Belgium, Sweden, Luxembourg and Netherlands were sending reconnaissance and rescue teams, some with search dogs and heavy equipment, while other government and aid groups offered tents, water purification units, doctors and telecommunications teams.
The quake hit at 5pm (10 pm Irish time), and witnesses reported people screaming “Jesus, Jesus” running into the streets as offices, hotels, houses and shops collapsed. Experts said the quake’s epicentre was very shallow at a depth of only 10km, 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. “You have thousands of people sitting in the streets with nowhere to go,” said Rachmani Domersant, an operations manager with the Food for the Poor charity.
Media reports said the archbishop of Port-au-Prince, Monsignor Joseph Serge Miot, has been found dead in the wreckage of the archdiocese office.
UN officials said normal communications had been cut off and the only way to talk with people on the ground was via satellite phone. Roads were blocked by rubble.
Some 9,000 UN police and troops are stationed in Haiti to maintain order and many countries were trying to determine the welfare of their personnel.
People pulled bodies from collapsed homes, covering them with sheets by the side of the road. Passers-by lifted the sheets to see if loved ones were underneath. Outside a crumbled building, the bodies of five children and three adults lay in a pile.
Tens of thousands of people lost their homes as buildings that were flimsy and dangerous even under normal conditions collapsed. Nobody offered an estimate of the dead, but the numbers were clearly enormous.
“The hospitals cannot handle all these victims,” said Dr Louis-Gerard Gilles. “Haiti needs to pray. We all need to pray together.”
An American aid worker was trapped for about 10 hours under the rubble of her mission house before she was rescued by her husband, who told CBS’ “Early Show” that he drove 160 kilometres to Port-au- Prince to find her. Frank Thorp said he dug for more than an hour to free his wife, Jillian, and a co-worker, from under about a foot of concrete.
At a destroyed four-story building, a girl aged about 16 stood on a car, trying to see inside while several men pulled at a foot sticking from rubble. She said her family was inside.
The quake was felt in the Dominican Republic, which shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti, and in eastern Cuba, but no major damage was reported in either place.
With electricity out in many places and phone service erratic, it was nearly impossible for Haitian or foreign officials to get full details of the devastation.
“Everybody is just totally, totally freaked out and shaken,” said Henry Bahn, a US Department of Agriculture official in Port-au-Prince. “The sky is just gray with dust.”
The earthquake also caused widespread destruction in the resort town of Jacmel, south of the capital, a witness said yesterday, saying he saw an entire mountain almost collapsed.
“It is a complete devastation here. Personally, I am lucky to be alive,” said Emmet Murphy, head of the Haitian office of the US non-governmental organisation ADCI/VOCA.
“I was driving back to Jacmel in the mountains when the entire mountain seemed to fall down all around me.”
Two hundred foreigners were missing at the Hotel Montana, French Secretary of State for Cooperation Alain Joyandet said.
“We know there were 300 people inside the hotel when it collapsed, only around 100 have got out, which greatly concerns us,” he told French radio.
Pope Benedict XVI urged a generous response to the catastrophe. The pope lamented Haiti’s “tragic situation (involving) huge loss of human life, a great number of homeless and missing and considerable material damage”.