PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — The tiny bodies of children lay in piles next to the ruins of their collapsed school. Survivors wandered the streets, their stunned faces covered by white dust and the blood of open wounds. Frantic doctors wrapped bleeding heads and stitched up sliced limbs in a hotel parking lot.
The poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, still struggling to recover from the relentless strikes of four catastrophic storms in 2008, was a picture of heartbreaking devastation Wednesday after a magnitude-7 earthquake.
Tuesday’s quake left a landscape of collapsed buildings — hospitals, schools, churches, ramshackle homes, even the gleaming national palace — the rubble sending up a white cloud that shrouded the entire capital.
On Wednesday, ambulances weaved in and out of crowds, swerving to miss the bodies lying in street and the men on foot who lugged stretchers bearing some of the injured.
Shocked survivors wandered about in a daze, some wailing the names of loved ones, praying or calling for help. Others with injuries fast growing into infections sat by the roadside, waiting for doctors who were not sure to come.
Search-and-rescue helicopters buzzed over the bodies of partially clothed victims who lay face-down in mounds of rubble and twisted steel.
Everywhere, there was panic, urgency, pleas for help.
“Thousands of people poured out into the streets, crying, carrying bloody bodies, looking for anyone who could help them,” Bob Poff, divisional director of disaster services in Haiti for the Salvation Army, said in a posting on the agency’s Web site.
Poff wrote that he was driving down the mountain from Petionville, a hillside city bordering the capital, when the earthquake struck.
“Our truck was being tossed to and fro like a toy, and when it stopped, I looked out the windows to see buildings ’pancaking’ down,” he wrote.
Poff said he and others piled bodies into the back of his truck and took them down the hill, hoping to get them medical attention.
There was no reliable count, but officials feared thousands, maybe tens of thousands, had died in the quake. Some Haitian leaders suggested the figure could be higher than 100,000. In the chaos, doctors rushed to tend to the countless injured.
The parking lot of Port-au-Prince’s Hotel Villa Creole became a triage center. Under tents fashioned from bloody sheets, dozens lay moaning from the pain of cuts in their heads, broken bones and crushed ribs.
“I can’t take it any more. My back hurts too much,” said Alex Georges, 28, who had lain on the parking lot’s sloping blacktop for more than a day waiting for help. Just a few feet away lay the dead body of another man who appeared to be about his age.
When the quake struck just before 5 p.m. Tuesday, Georges he was in a meeting with about 30 other students at a school in the neighborhood of Morne Hercule. The roof fell in, he said, killing 11 of his classmates instantly and critically injuring him and others.
Several thousand Haitian police and international peacekeepers poured into the streets Wednesday to clear debris, direct traffic and maintain security. But there was only so much they could do: Looters prowled through shops, then blended into crowds of desperate refugees lugging salvaged possessions. The main prison in the capital fell, and there were reports of escaped inmates, U.N. humanitarian spokeswoman Elisabeth Byrs said in Geneva.
Haitians who could still walk were streaming out of the capital by the hundreds, many of them balancing suitcases and other belongings on their heads as they headed down one of the capital’s main streets. Police shouted orders to keep traffic moving at congested intersections as ambulances and United Nations trucks raced toward downtown Port-au-Prince.
In Petionville, people used sledgehammers and their bare hands to excavate a collapsed commercial center, scampering across the rubble as they tossed aside mattresses and office supplies. More than a dozen cars and a U.N. truck were buried underneath.
Up the hill, about 200 victims, including many small children, huddled together in a theater parking lot and rigged tarps out of bed sheets to protect themselves from the scorching sun.
“The immediate need is to rescue people trapped in the rubble, then to get people food and water,” Sophie Perez, Haiti director of the U.S.-based humanitarian organization CARE, told her colleagues in an e-mail.
“Everything is urgent.”