On streets of Haiti's capital two days after quake, growing despair

By Mary Beth Sheridan, William Booth and Manuel Roig-Franzia
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, January 15, 2010; A01

PORT-AU-PRINCE, HAITI -- The news on the radio delivered the latest shock to Ives Sima: The eight-story technical college run by his cousin in the Haitian capital had collapsed in Tuesday's massive earthquake.

Sima, a high school biology teacher, jumped onto his bicycle and pedaled the nine miles from his home to the wrecked building. He wanted to offer the only tool he had: his hands.

All day Thursday, Sima and a handful of other volunteers using small, dull saws and broken windowpanes were the only rescuers searching for dozens of missing students and teachers at St. Gerard school in Port-au-Prince. Eventually, a volunteer turned up with a dump truck, a student's relative with a generator for a drill.

"It's the families of the victims -- it's not the government," said Sima, 32, whose cousin Louis Larosilière had founded the college. "For us, the government doesn't exist at all."

Bodies were piled on street corners, and residents stepped past quickly, holding limes to their noses to block the stench. Family members were moving their dead across the city in coffins borne on shoulders. One man ferried a body down a street in a wheelbarrow. A crew of men with shirts wrapped around their faces lurched down the block in a converted school bus stacked with corpses.

At a partially collapsed funeral home, the open carport held 20 bodies, some of them children. Just outside the chaotic General Hospital was an especially gruesome pile of corpses, bloated from the sun.

"We are all alone. We don't have any contact with anyone. No phones. No help. We beg for the Americans to come help us. Look at us!" said Jules Hector, an elderly man helping a neighbor, Pauline Paul, who was being carried to the hospital on a broken door.

'Now I have nothing'

On St. Martin Street in central Port-au-Prince, men chipped at the heap of sagging concrete that was once a Methodist church and school. The percussion of their blows could not drown out Exellent Fontus's wails.

"My mother is in there!" she cried. "My mother is dying."

Fontus stamped her feet and flapped her arms. She sobbed, and no amount of consoling could calm her. Her mother, Issionese Fontus, had gone to the little teal-trimmed church for a Bible-reading session. It took her daughter a full day to pick through the debris-strewn streets to reach the church, where she fears her mother will be entombed.

"No one could have survived this," a man said as he plunged back into the concrete pile.

Tens of thousands of people were erecting tents of sheets on any piece of open ground. Markets were closed, and it was hard to buy either food or water.

In the park across the street from the wrecked National Palace, Haiti's equivalent of the White House, a refugee camp grew. Playground equipment became makeshift dwellings. Men and women who had lost almost everything strung blankets over slides and monkey bars, then squatted in place, lest someone swipe their tiny spots.

Mivesa Antoine huddled with three sons -- ages 3, 5 and 10 -- and what was now the sum total of his worldly possessions: one plate, one spoon, one cup and half a bag of rice.

"I was a businessman; I sold sodas," Antoine said. "Now I have nothing."

Almost no one, it seemed, was spared tragedy. Sima, the small and balding teacher, had barely escaped with his wife and five children as their house tumbled down in the quake. Then he heard on the radio about the collapse of St. Gerard, his 60-year-old cousin's school. "He was like a father to me," Sima muttered.

No space at the morgue

Arriving at the school, Sima found eight floors pancaked into five, a dusty white mountain of rubble. The body of a man in a golf shirt hung out from the ruined building, his hand extended -- as though showing off his gold wedding band.

About 20 men began picking at the debris. But hours later, they were still getting nowhere.

Sima turned angrily to a crowd of gawkers.

"Come help! Do not talk! Talk is cheap! Help!" he screamed.

Suddenly, one of the brightly painted public buses known as tap-taps pulled up, hired by a student's family. "Here's a generator!" a man in the crowd cried.

Through hours of digging, there was only one sign of officialdom. Around 2 p.m., a Haitian government official -- known as a civic action monitor -- appeared.

"If you have a pickup truck, bring the bodies to the General Hospital," the bureaucrat, Lamour Jean Guyto, called through a bullhorn, referring to a dozen corpses lying on the street near the school. He then walked past the bodies -- a St. Gerard student, a woman wrapped in a sheet printed with dragon cartoons, a naked baby boy covered with flies.

An off-duty police officer paused from his work digging a roadside grave. There were no cars to transport the bodies, he said, and no space at the morgue.

"That's why we've decided to bury them ourselves."

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