PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti – Turning pickup trucks into ambulances and doors into stretchers, Haitians on Thursday frantically struggled to save those injured in the earthquake.
Help began arriving early Thursday when an Air China plane carrying a Chinese search-and-rescue team, medics and aid landed at Port-au-Prince airport, and more than 50 people in orange jumpsuits got out accompanied by trained dogs.
The U.S. and other nations said they were sending food, water, medical supplies to assist the Western Hemisphere’s poorest nation, where the international Red Cross estimated 3 million people — a third of the population — 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.
“It’s the most horrific thing I’ve ever seen,” Bob Poff, a Salvation Army worker in Port-au-Prince, told MSNBC. “We have to get food and water” quickly, he said, in describing conditions that range from stifling heat to numerous aftershocks. “We’re trying to stay alive.”
If there were any organized efforts to distribute food or water, they were not visible Wednesday.
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.
President Barack Obama promised an all-out rescue and humanitarian effort including the military and civilian emergency teams from across the U.S. The aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson was expected to arrive off the coast Thursday and the Navy said the amphibious assault ship USS Bataan had been ordered to sail as soon as possible with a 2,000-member Marine unit.
“We have to be there for them in their hour of need,” Obama said.
A U.S. military assessment team was the first to arrive, to determine Haiti’s needs.
Aid workers head to Haiti
The global relief effort picked up steam Thursday with a British flight carrying a government assessment team and 71 rescue specialists along with heavy equipment arriving in the neighboring Dominican Republic. The crew prepared to head to Haiti. A Los Angeles County Fire Department 72-member search team left for Haiti late Wednesday.
The United Nations released $10 million from its emergency funds, even as U.N. forces in Haiti struggled with their own losses. The U.N. headquarters building collapsed, and at least 16 personnel are confirmed dead, with up to 150 still missing, including mission head Hedi Annabi of Tunisia and his chief deputy, Luis Carlos da Costa.
“We’ll be using whatever roads are passable to get aid to Port-au-Prince, and if possible we’ll bring helicopters in,” said Emilia Casella, a spokeswoman for the U.N. food agency in Geneva.
Venezuela’s government said it would send a military plane with canned foods, medicine and drinking water and provide 50 rescue workers. Mexico, which suffered an earthquake in 1985 that killed some 10,000 people, planned to send doctors, search and rescue dogs and infrastructure damage experts.
Italy said it was sending a C-130 cargo plane with a field hospital and emergency medical personnel as well as a team to assess aid needs. France said 65 clearing specialists, with six sniffer dogs, and two doctors and two nurses were leaving.
There was 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 told The Associated Press the number could be 500,000, but conceded that nobody really knew.
“Let’s say that it’s too early to give a number,” Preval said told CNN.
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 center, tossing aside mattresses and office supplies. More than a dozen cars were entombed, including a U.N. truck.
Nearby, about 200 survivors, including many children, huddled in a theater parking lot using sheets to rig makeshift tents and shield themselves from the sun in 90-degree heat.
Police officers carried the injured in their pickup trucks. Wisnel Occilus, a 24-year-old student, was wedged between two other survivors in a truck bed headed to a police station. He was in an English class when the magnitude-7 quake struck at 4:53 p.m. and the building collapsed.
“The professor is dead. Some of the students are dead, too,” said Occilus, who suspected he had several broken bones. “Everything hurts.”
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 tarps and cotton sheets.
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