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A scene from Armageddon as corpses line the streets of Haiti

For once in their wretched, luckless lives, the people of Haiti were feeling good. They had survived the hurricane season that had caused such devastation in 2008, and Carnival was approaching. Then, as darkness fell on Tuesday, Port-au-Prince was hit by the country's worst earthquake in 240 years.

"It was terrifying," said Sophie Perez, director of Care International in Haiti.

"The quake lasted for more than a minute. People were screaming, crying, running. Everything was moving. I saw a building of nine storeys collapse right in front of me."

Rubble

People scrabbled in the wreckage of their homes through the night, searching by torchlight for trapped relatives and friends screaming in the darkness. As one powerful aftershock followed another -- more than 30 in all -- the people gathered in squares and outside churches to pray, sing hymns and begging God for deliverance. Dazed, sobbing and terrified of entering shattered buildings, they camped in the streets.

The sun rose to expose scenes of Armageddon -- buildings flattened, corpses littering the roads, limbs protruding from rubble, the air choked with dust. "The city looks a bit like what you see in a warzone on television after a couple of bombs had dropped," said Magalie Boyer, an official with the charity World Vision. The death toll is expected to reach tens of thousands, with prominent and poor, Haitians and foreigners, all affected. Mgr Serge Miot, (63) the Archbishop of Port-au-Prince, was killed when his office tumbled down. Up to 200 people were missing, feared dead, in the rubble of the UN's five-storey headquarters, as were 200 tourists at the luxurious Hotel Montana.

The damage to buildings and infrastructure in a country that lacks proper construction standards is appalling. The presidential palace, the cathedral, at least four ministries, embassies, schools and tens of thousands of homes have been severely damaged or destroyed.

The few hospitals left standing are overwhelmed with wounded. "The situation is chaotic," said Stefano Zannini, a doctor with Medecins Sans Frontieres. "I visited five medical centres, including a major hospital, and most of them were not functioning."

A colleague, Paul McPhun, said: "What we are seeing is severe trauma -- head wounds, crushed limbs -- problems that can't be dealt with with the medical care we have available."

Aid workers fear that many children will have died.

"So many schools seem to have collapsed," said Ms Perez. "Children were still in school when the earthquake hit, so there are many children trapped. It's horrifying."

Flimsy

Prisoners escaped from the shattered main prison. The electricity, water and telephone services collapsed. Aid agencies that will be spearheading the emergency relief effort had their headquarters wrecked and staff disabled or killed.

The only saving grace for the Haitian masses -- the poorest population in the Western hemisphere -- was that their shacks in the dreadful slums of Carrefour and Cite Soleil were probably too flimsy to kill them as they collapsed. Also spared, for the most part, were Haiti's small, wealthy elite who live in Petionville -- an enclave of fine houses high on the mountain overlooking Port-au-Prince. The fate of the Hotel Oloffson, immortalised by Graham Greene in his novel The Comedians, was unclear.

"Everyone is just totally, totally freaked out and shaken," said Henry Bahn, a US government official.

Father Andre Siohan, a French missionary, said: "The area is devastated and there are thousands of victims. We are on our knees."

The airport was still useable, and the first flights of what will be a massive rescue operation were arriving last night.

However, the port lost its only crane, many roads in the capital were blocked by debris, and Haiti has little heavy-lifting equipment.

Biblical

World leaders expressed shock at the destruction wreaked by a magnitude-7.0 earthquake centred only ten miles west of the capital. "Haiti has moved to the centre of the world's thoughts and the world's compassion," British PM Gordon Brown said of a country that had already been crippled by 200 years of misrule.

Of the population of nine million, 70pc live on less than €1.35 a day, and half are unemployed. US President Barack Obama said that the images of devastation and misery after Tuesday's earthquake were "truly heart-wrenching".

The Pope lamented Haiti's "tragic predicament".

Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Haiti's former President who now lives in exile in South Africa, called it a "tragedy that defies expression".

Hillary Clinton, the US Secretary of State, called the devastation "biblical" and said that the death toll could be compared to the 2004 Asian tsunami. She cut short her Pacific tour to return to Washington to deal with the Haiti crisis.

Thousands of members of the Haitian diaspora in the US, Canada and elsewhere spent the day desperately trying to telephone relatives and friends in the country. Danglass Gregoire (41) had just arrived in Florida on a business trip, leaving behind his wife and young daughter.

"I call, I call, I call," he said. "No one answers."

Planeloads of rescue teams and supplies were heading for Haiti last night as part of the relief effort.

The UN, the European Union, governments and aid agencies from around the world pledged manpower, money and supplies. One small blessing for Haiti is that its end of the island of Hispaniola is hit by hurricanes and other natural disasters so regularly that many agencies have large quantities of emergency supplies already stored there.

In a country where Roman Catholicism and voodoo are both strong, people were also looking to the supernatural for relief. "Haiti needs to pray," said Louis-Gerard Gilles, a former senator. "We all need to pray."

hnews@herald.ie


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