PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Rescue workers dragged corpses from collapsed buildings, dazed homeless wandered the streets and the death toll climbed Wednesday as dozens of aftershocks from a massive earthquake rattled this capital city.
The Roman Catholic archbishop was dead. The top U.N. envoy remained missing. And politicians and police struggled to keep the nation from descending into chaos.
It was a day of unfolding calamity.
"I have probably seen 30 or 40 bodies today, but that is just one street," said Benjamin Hopp, a missionary with the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.
He was gathering bodies and putting them in a pickup, a snapshot in suffering that reflected a grim reality. No reliable casualty count emerged even as President Rene Préval and Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive predicted the death toll could reach 100,000.
Rescue workers and frantic family dug through the rubble in the city of 2 million — some setting up makeshift morgues in churches, others collecting identification cards from corpses to try to compile a master list of the dead.
President Barack Obama pledged the full support of the United States in this "especially cruel and incomprehensible" tragedy, and the first aircraft carrying aid arrived by nightfall.
Workers at the airport unloaded medical supplies and water from a Venezuelan air force cargo plane on one portion of the tarmac, while U.S. Coast Guard planes evacuated wounded U.S. government workers and others from Haiti.
Lionel Wilson, an airport worker, described Tuesday's 7.0 magnitude earthquake as "like a war, but it was not a war," describing how he lay on the floor and watched the ground open in front of him.
"It was Jesus doing his thing," he said. "I just prayed and prayed and prayed. I felt like I was already dead."
President tours damage
"All of the hospitals are packed with people. It is a catastrophe," Préval said in his first comments to the world Wednesday morning after inspecting the "unimaginable" damage in several neighborhoods.
"Parliament has collapsed. The tax office has collapsed. Schools have collapsed. Hospitals have collapsed," he said. "There are a lot of schools that have a lot of dead people in them."
By evening, Bellerive said public health was a grave concern, and temperatures are in the 90s.
"I am worrying about water. I am worrying about health. We have all those people under buildings who will soon start to decompose. Pretty soon, we will have a problem with food."
The Pentagon's Southern Command dispatched a 30-member assessment team to work out of the U.S. Embassy as well as the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson, a reconnaissance plane to survey the damage, and Coast Guard aircraft to evacuate some of the 45,000 U.S. citizens in Haiti.
Air Force Gen. Douglas Fraser, the Southern Command chief, said the Pentagon might deploy an amphibious Navy ship with a Marine expeditionary unit and possibly thousands of soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division. They could help distribute relief supplies and keep the peace.
Haiti's fragile infrastructure and economy took a blow of incalculable proportions as hotels, the port's cargo cranes and markets crumbled.
But so did the institutions of a civil society.
The parliament building, National Palace and several Roman Catholic archdiocese buildings fell, including an office at the main cathedral, according to the Vatican, killing Archbishop Joseph Serge Miot and at least 100 priests and seminarians.
Sleeping in the streets
As night descended, shantytowns had sprung up around the capital. People slept in their cars, outdoors on mattresses and wandered the streets with suitcases on their heads — fearing more devastation as 35 aftershocks struck the region in the first 24 hours.
Haiti's national police chief, Mario Anderson, said a prison collapsed, freeing perhaps 1,000 prisoners to roam the streets at nightfall.
The chief of Haiti's U.N. mission, Hedi Annabi, was listed among an estimated 150 missing U.N. workers in the collapse of the five-story headquarters. Sixteen U.N. workers were confirmed dead.
Makeshift clinics could be seen across the city as outside medical teams swung into action — Cuban doctors already in Haiti setting up field hospitals, a team of University of Miami doctors to treat and evacuate casualties, and medical staff were treating the injured in a triage center set up like a clinic in a portion of the U.S. Embassy building.