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PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti – Dazed and injured Haitians sat on darkened streets pleading for help Wednesday and untold numbers were trapped in tons of rubble brought down by the strongest earthquake to hit this poor Caribbean nation in more than 200 years.

Destroyed communications made it impossible to tell the extent of destruction from Tuesday afternoon’s 7.0-magnitude tremor — or to estimate the number of dead lying among thousands of collapsed buildings in Haiti’s capital.

The ornate National Palace crumbled into itself, the headquarters of the U.N. peacekeeping mission collapsed and swaths of rickety shacks lay in shambles. Clouds of dust thrown up by falling buildings choked Port-au-Prince for hours. 

The United States and other nations began organizing aid efforts, alerting search teams and gathering supplies that will be badly needed in Haiti, the Western Hemisphere’s poorest country. The international Red Cross and other aid groups announced plans for major relief operations.

The International Federation of the Red Cross estimated that up to 3 million people had been affected. Paul Conneally, a spokesman for the organization, said Haiti was ill-prepared to handle a major disaster and that it would take 24-48 hours before a clear picture emerges of the scale of the destruction.

Associated Press journalists found the damage staggering even for a country long accustomed to tragedy and disaster.

‘Haiti needs to pray’

Thousands of buildings were damaged and destroyed throughout the city.

Dozens of aftershocks rattled the city as women covered in dust clawed out of debris, wailing. Stunned people wandered the streets holding hands. Thousands gathered in public squares long after nightfall, singing hymns.

“The hospitals cannot handle all these victims,” said Louis-Gerard Gilles, a doctor and former senator, as he helped survivors. “Haiti needs to pray. We all need to pray together.”

The quake struck at 4:53 p.m., centered just 10 miles west of Port-au-Prince at a depth of just 5 miles, the U.S. Geological Survey said. USGS geophysicist Kristin Marano called it the strongest earthquake since 1770 in what is now Haiti.

An Associated Press videographer saw a wrecked hospital where people screamed for help in Petionville, a hillside Port-au-Prince district that is home to many diplomats and wealthy Haitians as well as many poor people.

At a collapsed four-story apartment building, a girl of about 16 stood atop a car, trying to peer inside as several men pulled at a foot sticking out in an attempt to extricate the body. She said her family was inside.

“The whole city is in darkness. 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.

“People are trying to dig victims out with flashlights,” he added. “I think hundreds of casualties would be a serious understatement.”

“People are out in the streets, crying, screaming, shouting,” Karel Zelenka, director of the Catholic Relief Services office in Haiti, told The Washington Post. “This will be a major, major disaster.”

U.N. peacekeepers, most of whom are from Brazil, were trying to rescue survivors from their collapsed five-story headquarters, but U.N. peacekeeping chief Alain Le Roy said late Tuesday that “as we speak no one has been rescued.”

“We know there will be casualties but we cannot give figures for the time being,” he said.

Peacekeepers killed

Many U.N. personnel were missing, he said, including mission chief Hedi Annabi, who was in the building when the quake struck. Some 9,000 peacekeepers have been in Haiti since a 2004 rebellion ousted the president.

The China Daily newspaper reported that eight Chinese peacekeepers were killed and that 10 others were missing.

Taiwan’s Foreign Ministry said its embassy was destroyed and the ambassador hospitalized for undisclosed injuries.

The National Palace crumbled into itself, but Haiti’s ambassador to Mexico Robert Manuel said President Rene Preval and his wife survived the earthquake. 

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