Haitians’ faithful thank God for their lives

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Drumbeats called the faithful to a Sunday Mass praising God amid a scene resembling the Apocalypse — a collapsed cathedral in a city cloaked with the smell of death and rattled by gunfire, where rescue crews battle to pry an ever-smaller number of the living from the ruins.

Sunlight streamed through what little was left of blown-out stained-glass windows today as the Rev. Eric Toussaint preached to a small crowd of survivors. A rotting body lay in its main entrance.

“Why give thanks to God? Because we are here,” Toussaint said. “We say ‘Thank you God.’ What happened is the will of God. We are in the hands of God now.”

As Catholic and Protestant worshippers across the city met for their first Sunday services since the magnitude-7.0 quake, many Haitians were still waiting for food and water after five days and violence began to crack through.

Gunfire crackled in the streets as police battled suspected looters in parts of the city. Officers were seen hurling tear gas canisters, sending crowds running along the rubble-strewn avenues. At least some suspected looters were beaten and shot.

Haitians seemed increasingly frustrated by a seemingly invisible government — some setting bonfires in a downtown street to burn the bodies authorities have been unable to remove, leaving passers-by to cover their faces against the smell of burning flesh.

Rescue workers, too, were exasperated by the struggle to get aid through the small, damaged and clogged airport run by U.S. military controllers, and to get it from the airport into town.

Doctors Without Borders said today that a cargo plane carrying a field hospital was denied permission to land at the airport and had to be rerouted through the Dominican Republic — creating a 24-hour delay in setting up a crucial field hospital.

Nobody knows how many died in Tuesday’s quake. The Pan American Health Organization now says 50,000 to 100,000 people perished in the quake. Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive said 100,000 would “seem to be the minimum.”

Yet President Rene Preval has made no broadcast address to his nation, nor has he been seen at any disaster site. Instead he has met Cabinet ministers and foreign visitors at a police station that serves as his base following the collapse of the National Palace.

“The government is a joke. The U.N. is a joke,” said 71-year-old Jacqueline Thermati, who lay in the dirt at a damaged old-age hospice — not far from Preval’s temporary headquarters — where dozens of elderly people were near death.

Downtown, young men sitting amid piles of garbage shouted, “Preval out! Aristide come back!” referring to former Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who was ousted in 2004.

At the roofless cathedral, elderly women worried the beads of their rosaries and prayed for the intervention of Our Lady Of The Ascension, to whom the 81-year-old church is named.

A military helicopter roared overhead, drowning out a hymn by the congregation. Above loomed the partially destroyed office of the archbishop who died nearby and another building whose blown-out walls had laid it open it like a doll’s house.

Amid the desperation, some turned to looting.

Not far from the cathedral, about 300 people gathered before a quake-damaged line of shops as men on the roof, one with a rifle, tossed items down to them: cartons of toothpaste, gift sets of stationary, plastic baby seats. Some men fought over a parcel of toddlers’ clothes as stinging smoke from burning trash filled the street.

Some suspected looters were killed, as well. Two men lay on the street in the Delmas neighborhood, both beaten and with their hands bound together. Some in the angry crowd that gathered around them said they had been attacked by angry residents, others that police had caused their wounds.

One lay motionless, his dreadlocked hair stained by a deep pool of dark crimson blood. The other lay bleeding profusely but occasionally twitched his leg.

A few hours later, a reporter found both men were dead. However they got that way — whether vigilante justice or police execution — all agreed that they were criminals who had escaped from the destroyed prison.

There were also occasions of joy: Virginia firefighters pulled U.N. civil affairs officer Jens Christensen of Denmark — alive and conscious — from the rubble of the ruined UN building. Other teams rescued a woman from a collapsed university building, three survivors were pulled from deep in the pancaked ruins of a supermarket and Montana Hotel co-owner Nadine Cardoso was saved from that wrecked building.

“It’s a little miracle,” said her husband, Reinhard Riedl. “She’s one tough cookie. She is indestructible.”

But the rescue was bittersweet for Cardoso’s sister Gerthe: Rescuers had to abandon a search for her 7-year-old grandson after an aftershock closed a space where he was believed to be.

U.N. humanitarian spokeswoman Elisabeth Byrs said 1,739 rescue workers in 43 teams with 161 dogs and high-tech equipment so far have saved more than 70 people.

“It is enough because I didn’t have anything at all,” said Louis, 29, clutching four packets of biscuits.

The Haitian government has established 14 distribution points for food and other supplies, and U.S. Army helicopters scouted locations for more. Aid groups opened five emergency health centers. Vital gear, such as water-purification units, was arriving from abroad.

On a hillside golf course, perhaps 50,000 people were sleeping in a makeshift tent city overlooking the stricken capital and paratroopers of the U.S. 82nd Airborne Division flew in to set up a base for handing out water and food.

As relief teams grappled with on-the-ground obstacles, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton visited and pledged more American assistance. President Barack Obama met with former Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton in Washington and urged Americans to donate to Haiti relief efforts.

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