Rescuers began a race against time to save the Haiti earthquake survivors today as a trickle of aid began arriving in the country.
With countless thousands injured and millions in desperate need of food and water, the first flights from overseas touched down at Port-au-Prince airport.
A plane carrying a Chinese search-and-rescue team, medics and tons of food and medicine landed before dawn, along with three French planes with aid and a mobile hospital, officials said.
A British relief team arrived in neighbouring Dominican Republic.
The US and others said they were sending food, water, medical supplies to help what the international Red Cross estimated were three million people – a third of the population – who may need emergency relief.
In the streets of the capital, survivors set up camps amid piles of salvaged goods, including food being scavenged from the rubble.
“This is much worse than a hurricane,” said Jimitre Coquillon, a doctor’s assistant working at a makeshift triage centre set up in a hotel car park. “There’s no water. There’s nothing. Thirsty people are going to die.”
If there were any organised efforts to distribute food or water, they were not visible today.
The aid group Doctors Without Borders treated wounded at two hospitals that withstood the quake and set up tent clinics elsewhere to replace its damaged facilities. Cuba, which already had hundreds of doctors in Haiti, treated injured in field hospitals.
French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said the three French planes that touched down today are to evacuate around 60 injured people to hospitals in the Caribbean islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe.
There was still no estimate on how many people were killed by Tuesday’s magnitude-7 quake.
Haitian President Rene Preval said the toll could be in the thousands. Leading Sen. Youri Latortue said it could be 500,000, but conceded that nobody really knew.
“Let’s say that it’s too early to give a number,” he said.
Survivors used sledgehammers and their bare hands to try to find victims in the rubble.
In Petionville, next to the capital, people dug through a collapsed shopping centre, tossing aside mattresses and office supplies. More than a dozen cars were entombed, including a UN truck.
Nearby, about 200 survivors, including many children, huddled in a theatre car park using sheets to rig makeshift tents and shield themselves from the sun.
Police carried the injured in their pickup trucks.
Other survivors carried injured to hospitals in wheelbarrows and on stretchers fashioned from doors.
Bodies lay everywhere in Port-au-Prince: tiny children next to schools, women in rubble-strewn streets with stunned expressions frozen on their faces, men hidden beneath plastic and cotton sheets.
Balancing suitcases and belongings on their heads, survivors streamed on foot into the Haitian countryside, where wooden and breeze block shacks showed little sign of damage. Ambulances and UN trucks raced in the opposite direction, toward Port-au-Prince.
Calls from victims seeking help from emergency services were not getting through because systems that connect different phone networks were not working, said officials from a telecommunications provider in Haiti.
Calls were being placed sometimes 15 to 20 times from the same phone, which was “painful to watch,” said Jyoti Mahurkar-Thombre, Alcatel-Lucent’s general manager.
About 3,000 police and international peacekeepers cleared debris, directed traffic and maintained security in the capital. But law enforcement was stretched thin even before the quake and would be ill-equipped to deal with major unrest.
The UN’s 9,000-member peacekeeping force sent patrols across the capital’s streets while securing the airport, port and main buildings.
Looting began immediately after the quake, with people carrying food from collapsed buildings. Inmates were reported to have escaped from the damaged main prison in Port au Prince.