Haiti earthquake: UN confronts largest tragedy in own history

The Haiti earthquake, on top of the Haitian toll, has the United Nations confronting the largest single loss of life for its own personnel in its 65-year history.

UN Photo Logan Abassi / Reuters
The UN headquarters is seen in this aerial view taken after an earthquake in Port-au- Prince, in this photo taken Wednesday.

The United Nation's is used to confronting disasters. Whether in the aftermath of civil wars or the wake of natural disasters, its employees and the military personnel seconded to the UN are frequently among the first to enter the hostile environments.

Danger comes with that territory, and UN workers have lost their lives in a dozen countries around the world as a consequence. But the Haiti earthquake on Tuesday that devastated the capital Port-au-Prince and killed tens of thousands of Haitians, is shaping up to be the deadliest for the UN's own employees in the organization's 65-year history.

The earthquake quickly demolished much of the Christopher Hotel, the UN's Haiti headquarters, as it did to hundreds of buildings across the city. Speaking in New York on Thursday, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said that roughly 150 of his staff remained unaccounted for and estimated that about 100 of the missing were in the hotel at the time of its collapse. He said that 22 soldiers and policemen seconded to the UN have already been confirmed dead.

"I have seen the image of this UN headquarters," Mr. Ban said. "It was terrible. Half of the Christopher Hotel had totally collapsed."

UN staff are typically given training in emergency preparedness and rally points that they should head to in the event of catastrophes like the one that struck Haiti.

And while Haiti has never seen a disaster like the current one, it's long been a dangerous and unstable place. The UN has had a continuous presence in Haiti since 1994, when 20,000 peace-keepers were deployed. In the 15 years since and before the earthquake, the UN had suffered 57 fatalities in Haiti, 37 of those to peace keepers. Before the earthquake, the UN had about 11,000 people in country, 9,000 of them international soldiers and police.

Ban has refused to confirm reports, one from the Haitian president, that the head of the UN mission to Haiti H├ędi Annabi was among the dead. The UN says simply that he has not yet been found, and that they hope that he and the rest of the missing are alive in the rubble, waiting for rescue.

Edmond Mulet, Mr. Annabi's predecessor, was named as an interim replacement by Ban on Thursday, and was expected to arrive in Port-au-Prince around mid-afternoon.

Ban described frantic efforts to find survivors in the Christopher Hotel's rubble, with rescue teams working with dogs on the pile to find signs of life. One success was the discovery of injured Estonian bodyguard Tarmo Joveer, who was found alive and dehydrated under about 12 feet of rubble. After being given water through a hose, the debris was eventually cleared and he was taken to hospital.

"It was a small miracle during a night, which brought few other miracles,'' Ban said. "We will continue to work, to search and rescue, as quickly as possible. I think the first 72 hours will be critically important. Now we are approaching 48 hours by 5:00 this afternoon. I hope that we will have more and more survivors."

The three-day window Ban referred to is crucial in search and rescue. Beyond that point, with dehydration and the effect of injuries often worsening, survival is much less likely.

The current death toll of 22 matches the third deadliest day for the UN its history, the suicide truck bombing of the Canal Hotel in Baghdad in August, 2003. Among the 22 casualties of that attack was Sergio Vieira de Mello, the head of the UN mission in Iraq.

The single deadliest day for the UN was in 1961, when 44 peacekeeping soldiers from Ghana were killed in ambush by the Congolese National Army.

For other updates on Haiti, follow the Global News Blog.

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