PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — By Thursday, the bodies had
begun piling up on the streets. Where the day before there were one or two, now
there were several, sometimes dozens in a single spot. It became common to see
people carrying bodies through the streets, pickup trucks loaded with bodies on
their beds, people pushing bodies in wheelbarrows.
So many bodies, and so little help.
With no food, water or medical assistance in sight, a sense
of chaos and urgency gripped Haiti’s capital. In a country where
civil institutions have rarely worked, there also was a sense of forsaken
In the Turgeau neighborhood, up the hill from downtown, Lily
Pierre Lormeus stared at the ruins of a three-story school where adults
had been taking classes Tuesday afternoon. The top two floors had fallen
intact, and screaming people scrambled out, she said. But the rest of the
students were entombed on the bottom floor, dead or soon to be.
“All Tuesday night, up to yesterday, we heard people
yelling and groaning,” said Lormeus, who runs another school nearby.
“Nobody could do anything.”
“We need tools,” she said. “It’s starting to
Most big buildings in Port-au-Prince were built
like cheap parking structures. Columns held up big slabs of concrete. The walls
were thin cinder block. When they fell, they became unforgiving mountains to
dig through. Offices, apartments, schoolrooms, all collapsed to mere inches.
Remarkably, for a metropolitan area of several million
people just 700 miles from Miami, heavy machinery seemed almost
nonexistent. Most people didn’t even have picks or hammers. In the absence of
tools, they resorted to using the rubble itself and pieces of rebar — or just
their hands — to dig through thick slabs of concrete.
Although some foreign medical crews quickly set up field
hospitals for Haitians injured in Tuesday’s earthquake — Doctors Without
Borders said it had treated more than 1,000 people — some of the more visible
international rescue efforts seemed focused on foreign victims.
An American rescue crew from Virginia pried loose
the wreckage of the United Nations mission headquarters in what had
been the six-story Hotel Christophe, now a one-story pile of debris. Using
an excavator and crane, the Americans, along with a Chinese rescue crew, were
able to find about a dozen survivors, who were taken to a U.N. hospital.
The American rescuers next went to the Hotel Montana, a
nexus for the international community in Port-au-Prince.
Most Haitians saw none of this. For the poor, the desperate,
the bereaved, there was little help. The Haitian government, for the most part,
was a no-show.
In the hillside neighborhood of Petionville, men snaked down
a deep street with a wooden coffin on their shoulders, dancing and singing as
Hundreds of bodies lay in the parking lot of the General
Hospital morgue, waiting for families to identify and remove them. Few
people have the financial means to bury them.
Along L’Ouverture Boulevard, named for the leader of Haiti’s revolution,
an exodus of sorts was under way. Lines of cars and trucks, three or four
abreast in a two-lane thoroughfare, crawled at a noisy snail’s pace. Stranded
in the interminable, fume-choked jams were overcrowded buses and trucks with
sheet-wrapped corpses in the back. Vehicles were stacked high with salvaged
goods, mostly mattresses, bundles of clothing, a suitcase or two, as people
The nearly complete collapse of the country’s communications
network made it difficult to know what conditions awaited the refugees as they
made their way to the countryside or smaller cities. But given how close the
quake’s epicenter was to Port-au-Prince, it seemed reasonable to expect
that the situation might be better elsewhere.
But for most people, fleeing was not an option.
At the bottom of a hill, Haitians were sleeping under tarps
in Place Canape Vert, still wary of what the earth might do. In a country that
has seen horrific spates of violence, the toll was unprecedented.
They were furious, though not surprised, that they were left
to themselves to dig out the trapped, haul off the dead, beg for help for the
Hubert Benjamin, 59, blamed his own government and figured
that it would squander any international aid it received.
“I know if they give it to them to give to the Haitian….
I know already they won’t give it to us.
“Look at how many people die here on the ground. No one
comes to see them. Right now there is still someone crying in a building down
He led a reporter up a bank of rubble onto the roof of a
collapsed school. A dozen men holed up in a cave with a small hand pick and a
crowbar. The five floors of the school had sandwiched into one, like the strata
of a canyon wall. In a little pocket of air between the layers, a woman was
alive. They heard her knocking a rock against the concrete about 8
a.m.They started digging.
They found out her name, Emelen Marche. She was a young
mother who had come to the school to pay her children’s tuition.
By 5 p.m., the men had been working for seven hours in
the muggy heat amid gathering flies and the nauseous smell of decomposing
corpses. Two bodies were bloating up on the basketball court 20 yards away, a
man was sprawled on the roof just a few feet away, and in another hole in the
roof, the top half of a man who looked like a teacher lay crushed by a girder,
still wearing his spectacles.
Nor was this the only excavation going on. On the other side
of the roof, a natty old man in white pants, a white guayabera shirt and
wingtip shoes directed young men to dig out his son. He sat on the roof,
occasionally lying down and staring at the sky. He knew his son was gone; he
just wanted him out.
Marche, the young mother, appeared likely to make it. The
men gave her water and food through the hole. Jean Eddy Fleurantin took
his turn with the pick. A young boy came down with a rusty hacksaw to cut
She was talking. “Don’t do that!” she would yell,
when their strikes with the pick came too close to her hand.
As the sun set behind the mountains, and total darkness
approached, a reporter asked when they thought she might be set free.
“That’s in God’s hands,” Fleurantin said.
Even if she gets out, there is no happy ending to this
story. The two children whose tuition Marche came to pay were crushed to death
in their home.
(c) 2010, Los Angeles
Visit the Los
Angeles Times on the Internet at http://www.latimes.com/