By Colum Lynch
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 20, 2010; 8:04 PM
UNITED NATIONS -- As search and rescue workers neared the final phase of their hunt for survivors of Haiti's devastating Jan. 12 earthquake, U.N. officials said they might never be able to determine the final death toll.
Haitian officials estimated Wednesday that the death toll might reach between 100,000 and 150,000 and that 70,000 bodies have already been buried in mass graves. But U.N. officials say the numbers are at best a guess.
The grim process of counting the dead has been complicated by the breakdown of government institutions, including the collapse of hospitals and morgues. Many people are still buried under collapsed homes, hotels and government buildings, making a final count premature.
"People are still being pulled out of the rubble, extraordinarily," said John Holmes, U.N. emergency relief coordinator. He noted that foreign rescue teams had pulled more than 120 people out alive from collapsed buildings. "And we'll continue with that as long as there is any hope of finding people alive."
Even measuring the United Nations' dead has been a struggle. For several days, it declined to provide details about its deceased staff, leaving it to governments to confirm the deaths of their nationals. U.N. officials said their caution was driven by a concern that families first be notified of a loved one's death and that no mistakes be made.
Other officials say the United Nations has been especially cautious about releasing the names of their dead because of previous mistakes. After the 2003 suicide attack against U.N. headquarters in Baghdad, which killed 22 U.N. officials and guests, at least one staffer who survived was reported dead.
The United Nations in Haiti, meanwhile, has been dramatically adjusting its death count. On Sunday, the United Nations estimated that nearly 650 civilian staff were missing. Today, that figure dropped to 296.
Nick Birnback, spokesman for the U.N. department of peacekeeping, which overseas the U.N. mission in Haiti, said the reason for the lower figure is that most of the missing were Haitian nationals who had survived but had been cut off from the organization since the earthquake.
"Our hope is that the vast majority left the building and went home," Birnback said. "As communications are restored, we are hearing from more and more of them, and we hope this continues."
The rescue of a Danish civilian Sunday boosted hopes that more people might be alive. But officials conceded that those hopes are beginning to fade. "There is a large number of international staff still missing," Birnback said. But "as the days go by, we have to confront the reality that the prospects grow dim that we are going to find more survivors."
So far, the United Nations has confirmed the deaths of 46 U.N. personnel, including at least 35 foreign civil servants and peacekeepers. U.N. officials say that number will probably approach 70 in the final toll, the largest number of fatalities ever for the United Nations.
"No matter what the final numbers end up being," Birnback said, "we already know that it will be heartbreakingly high."