Rescuers race through night to save Haiti students

Rescue crews working under the glare of floodlights dug through the rubble of a collapsed school in Haiti early today in a frantic search for students who may still be trapped in a disaster that has already killed at least 47 people.

Rescue crews working under the glare of floodlights dug through the rubble of a collapsed school in Haiti early today in a frantic search for students who may still be trapped in a disaster that has already killed at least 47 people.

It is not known how many students were in the school when it collapsed Friday morning. But authorities said roughly 500 children and teenagers typically crowded into the three-story concrete building of College La Promesse, which served classes from nursery to secondary high school.

The chaotic rescue effort by Red Cross workers, UN peacekeepers and Haitian authorities was inhibited from the start by thousands of grieving neighbours, who blocked the steep, narrow street and fought with school officials to enter the collapsed building in search of their children and friends.

UN peacekeepers and Haitian police were able to establish some order by setting up human chains and 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 essentially work with their hands.

At least 39 bodies were taken to the morgue at Port-au-Prince’s General Hospital, Haitian police spokesman Garry Desrosier said.

Another eight people died in a trauma centre run by the aid group Medecins Sans Frontieres, or Doctors Without Borders, spokesman Francois 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 onto them, and that the school’s owner tried to buy up their vacated properties.

The concrete building’s third storey was still under construction, and Petionville Mayor Claire Lydie Parent said she suspected a structural defect caused the collapse, not the recent chain of tropical storms that swept devastation across Haiti.

Police commissioner Francene Moreau said the minister who ran the church-operated school could face criminal charges.

The building collapsed into little more than a twisted mountain of concrete, out of which protruded the mangled, bloody bodies of students killed in the collapse.

Thousands looked on from beside the school and across the valley, cheering each time a live student was extricated from the debris. One student who emerged and was lifted on 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 mayor said as the search for survivors intensified.

Haitian President Rene Preval visited the scene to offer his sympathy. He asked onlookers to come down from surrounding buildings that engineers feared might have been destabilised by the collapse.

The Dominican Republic, which shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti, was sending two helicopters to help, Dominican Health Minister Bautista Rojas said. French 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, a string of hurricanes and tropical storms that killed nearly 800 people.

Thousands of Haitian menial labourers live in collapse-prone hillside slums around the capital, Port-au-Prince, to be near the mansions of the foreign diplomats, UN staff and wealthy elite for whom they work.

Parents said they toiled endlessly throughout the year to afford the school’s tuition fees in hopes of empowering their children to someday escape poverty.

The UN peacekeepers were sent to Haiti following the bloody ousting of former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 2004 and have improved security by fighting gangs and training local police.

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