PETIONVILLE, Haiti (AP) A hillside school where roughly 500 students crowded into several floors collapsed during classes on Friday, killing at least 30 people and injuring many more. Rescuers used bare hands to pull bleeding students from the wreckage.
More children were believed buried in the rubble of the concrete building, and the death toll was likely to go higher, Yphosiane Vil, an civil protection official, told The Associated Press at the scene.
Neighbors suspected the building was poorly rebuilt after it partially collapsed eight years ago, said Jinny Germain, a French teacher at the school. She said people who lived just downhill abandoned their land out of fear that the building would tumble onto them, and that the school’s owner tried to buy up their vacated properties.
The concrete building’s third story was still under construction, and Petionville Mayor Claire Rudie Parent told the AP she suspects a structural defect caused the collapse, not the recent rains.
Police commissioner Francene Moreau says the preacher who runs the church-operated school could face criminal charges.
Parent said roughly 500 students from kindergarten through high school attend the school, College La Promesse, in the hills above Port-au-Prince. She did not know how many were inside when it collapsed late Friday morning.
The aid group Doctors Without Borders pulled out 85 people, half with life-threatening injuries, said Max Cosci, the group’s director in Haiti.
Volunteers arrived with shovels and axes and said they would try to deliver water to people trapped inside.
A swelling crowd erupted with wails and prayers as the injured were carried away and emergency vehicles raced up a winding hill to the school.
“My child, my child!” one mother yelled.
“There are no words for this,” the mayor said as the search for survivors intensified.
The Dominican Republic, which shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti, was sending two helicopters to help, Dominican health minister Bautista Rojas said.
United Nations peacekeepers and Haitian police also arrived, trying to clear a path for three battalions of military engineers from Brazil, Chile and Ecuador to assist in the rescue.
U.N. military commander Maj. Gen. Carlos Alberto Dos Santos Cruz had to walk uphill to get through the crowd.
“This is going to be an all-day affair,” Red Cross official Matt Marek said.
Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, has been struggling to recover from widespread riots over rising food prices, a string of hurricanes and tropical storms that killed nearly 800 people.
The U.N. peacekeepers were sent to Haiti following the bloody ouster of former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 2004 and have improved security by fighting gangs and training local police.