By Colum Lynch
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 14, 2010; 5:18 PM
UNITED NATIONS -- Grappling with what appears to be the organization's greatest loss of life in a single incident, United Nations officials said Thursday that 36 U.N. staffers, police and peacekeepers have been confirmed dead and up to 160 remain missing in the rubble of the Haiti earthquake -- but eight have been rescued alive from the collapsed U.N. headquarters building and a nearby facility.
David Wimhurst, a U.N. spokesman in Haiti, said at least 13 international staff, including volunteers, 19 peacekeepers and four U.N. police died in the earthquake. So far, 13 bodies have been recovered from the wreckage of the Christopher Hotel, which served as the U.N. headquarters in Port-au-Prince, he said.
In addition, nine U.N. police were injured and 18 remain missing out of a force of 2,090 in Haiti, Wimhurst said. Among the peacekeepers, who total more than 7,000 in the country, 26 were injured and 10 are missing, he said. The quake also left 38 U.N. staffers injured, of whom 24 are Haitians.
In a closed-circuit news briefing from Port-au-Prince, Wimhurst said he was on the third floor of the headquarters building when the 7.0 magnitude earthquake struck.
"I was in my office, and of course the event happened and it accelerated with extreme violence," he told reporters. "The entire building was shaking violently, and I was hanging onto furniture just to stop myself being thrown around the room and praying that the big concrete pillar in the middle of my office would not break and bring the whole down building down on me."
When the shaking stopped, the central part of the headquarters had collapsed and blocked off exits from his office, he said.
"So all the people in my wing had to get out of my window and go down the three stories on a ladder, a rather rickety ladder."
Earlier, in a rare piece of good news, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said that an Estonian police officer, Tarmo Joveer, 38, was pulled, unharmed, from the rubble of the Christopher Hotel. Rescue workers with an elite Fairfax County-based search-and-rescue team heard scratching sounds coming from beneath the wreckage, Ban said, and lowered a rubber pipe 12 feet below the street to supply Joveer with water until he could be freed.
"It was a small miracle during the night that brought few other miracles," Ban said.
Among those still unaccounted for is the U.N. chief of mission in Haiti, Tunisian diplomat Hédi Annabi. The known dead include Brazilian and Jordanian peacekeepers.
Officials said there is dwindling hope that many of the missing have survived, and it appears likely that the death toll will exceed the 44 Ghanaian peacekeepers killed in Congo in 1961, as well as the 22 officials and guests who died in a suicide bombing at U.N. headquarters in Baghdad in August 2003.
"This is a very difficult moment for all of us," Susana Malcorra, the head of U.N. field operations, said Wednesday, after hours of taking calls from distraught relatives of the missing. "It's not an easy conversation," she said.
Edmond Mulet, a Guatemalan who had previously led the Haiti mission, was sent back to Port-au-Prince late Wednesday to take charge of the mission until the fate of his successor, Annabi, could be determined. Hundreds of other staff members from around the world volunteered to travel to Haiti to help the survivors, said Alain Le Roy, the top U.N. peacekeeping official.
Ban provided no new figures at his briefing Thursday on the number of dead Haitian or foreign civilians. "The overall picture remains still sketchy," he told reporters. But the "facts as far as we know it are grim. . . . The death toll, I feel, could be very high. Clearly this is a major humanitarian crisis."
The United Nations operation in Haiti is short on food, water and the heavy equipment required to remove the concrete, metal and other building materials that have trapped people, Ban said. He said he spoke to Susan E. Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, to ask for more engineers, medical supplies and helicopters.
The United Nations, not the United States, will take the lead in coordinating the humanitarian response to the earthquake, Ban said. He said he expected that Mulet would arrive in the country Thursday afternoon to take charge of the U.N. mission and the relief effort in Annabi's absence.
Ban said he was also relieved to hear that his former spokeswoman, Michèle Montas, a Haitian national who is in Port-au-Prince, had not been harmed during the earthquake. "I have communicated with her and I'm very happy," he said, adding that he hoped she would come out of retirement to help the U.N. respond to the crisis.
In an e-mail, Montas said that she was unhurt but that 80 percent of the city was destroyed. "I saw hundreds of bodies in the street this morning," she wrote.