Haiti relief work in high gear as rescue teams work round the clock

Haiti relief work teams from Brazil, the Philippines, France, the US, and elsewhere are rushing to reach victims of the 7.0 magnitude quake that struck Port-au-Prince on Jan. 12.

Mary Knox Merrill / The Christian Science Monitor
A search-and-rescue team from France prepares to extract bodies from the collapsed Hotel Montana in Port-au-Prince, Haiti Friday. The team, along with other teams from the US, Spain, and Ecuador, have rescued eight people at the hotel, but an estimated 60 to 80 people died.

Two French rescue workers are burrowed in a hole barely bigger than their bodies, methodically and tirelessly using picks, small shovels, and their hands to dig out victims they believe are buried in the remains of a hotel in Port-au-Prince.

“Hello? Hello? Can you hear me?” Benjamin Seewald calls out in French, trying to communicate with anyone who still might be below.

Silence. But the two men continue. So far, at least eight people have been rescued from here, as US, French, Chilean, Spanish, and Filipino paramedics, firefighters, doctors, and engineers scramble to rescue those still alive.

The city of Port-Au-Prince is in a mad rush to reach victims after a 7.0 magnitude earthquake struck this capital, burying entire parts of the city. The next day will be critical, as hydration becomes a life-threatening issue. But rescue workers are not giving up.

“These miracles do happen,” says Mark Stone, a member of the US Search & Rescue team from Fairfax, Va., here with USAID. “And it is that one in a million that makes us get up in the morning.”

But the Americans are not alone. Teams from across the world have been arriving in Haiti since the first hours after the quake. Many have not gotten any more than a few minutes of sleep, if any. The more than 20 countries here – in addition to the UN, World Bank, and numerous private groups – have already pledged aid to Haiti. Brazil is dispatching aircraft with food and water, Cuba has sent 30 doctors, and Israel dispatched a rescue staff of 240. At the Port-au-Prince airport, military planes from Venezuela and Colombia had landed, bringing in supplies.

The US military is sending some 9,000 troops to Haiti, though most of them will stay on ships until needed. Included in that number are some 2,200 marines.

“There is nothing that Haiti´s government can do,” says Francisco Morales, a Spanish firefighter who says he has not slept since his arrival the day after the quake. “They need our support.”

Many wait at the palace gardens

The needs in this city are enormous. Bodies lie on the side of the road. The earthquake left thousands homeless. Hundreds of families went straight to the gardens of the national palace, even though the building, the center of national control, had crumbled. Many say they were seeking government food and water and have been there ever since.

In the sweltering heat, in a place where the only "toilet" available is the ground, the stench is overpowering. Those who are waiting there rush toward foreign visitors, begging for water and food.

Ketty Vestaire, a single mother, is sleeping under a flimsy tarp, with just a blanket on the ground for her, her daughter, and her sister´s family. “We need services,” says Ms. Vestaire, who was cooking plain spaghetti over a stove. The government had distributed water the day before, but she says no doctors have visited and food is running out.

Many people in the gardens say they worry about safety, even stampedes, if desperation grows. Rescue workers say their attention will turn to survivors as soon as they reach all of those still trapped in the infrastructure, under walls and floors and in elevator shafts, of Port-au-Prince.

The American rescue effort here is being led by USAID, with three teams on the ground from Miami, Los Angeles, and Fairfax, Va., and two more en route. Each is comprised of about 72 firefighters, paramedics, and doctors. They have dogs and technical teams who can identify human sounds through concrete and earth. They have been to banks and police stations that fell.

The team from Fairfax spent an entire day tunneling through the walls of the Montana Hotel, which is popular among foreigners, with small picks and their bare hands. Estimates are that between 60 and 80 people may have died there. The rescuers crawled through tunnels to reach a woman who had been trapped and, finally, was rescued alive today.

Two men, a Haitian and an American, had been in separate elevators when the earthquake hit. Over the next two days, they talked each other through the anxiety of waiting. When rescuers finally reached them today, cutting through the metal sides of the elevator, the men wanted to meet.

The Haitian had not a single injury; the Americans some limb injuries. “It was a very emotionally moment,” says Mr. Stone, a firefighter from Fairfax.

While the success stories continue to emerge, so too do the tragedies. The eight-person team of Spanish firefighters arrived within 24 hours of the earthquake. They successfully got the receptionist out of the Montana Hotel alive, after an 18-hour dig, but two others, who were alive when they started, did not make it, including a 7-year-old boy. A 10-person team from the Chilean investigative police is here to identify bodies, says Alejandro Gonzalez, the head of their team, including one Chilean reported missing.

But rescuers are undaunted. Back in the tunnel, Mr. Seewald and Anthony Renaut continue to dig, little by little, flashlights lighting their way.

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