Tuesday, November 11, 2008

No signs of life in Haiti school collapse: rescuers

PETION-VILLE, Haiti (AFP) — Rescue workers said they have found "no sign of life" in the rubble of a Haitian school that collapsed last week killing at least 93 people, and recommended that search efforts turn to body recovery.

"We have inspected the rubble with cameras and dogs. We have unfortunately found no sign of life," French medic Daniel Vigier told reporters, saying that the rubble should now be cleared in order to remove the bodies.

"We will take every precaution possible" in order to protect any remaining survivors, Vigier said, noting however that the likelihood of finding anyone alive at this point was "very slim."

So far only four children have been found alive at the school, La Promesse, in Petion-ville, on the outskirts of the capital Port-au-Prince. The three-storey building collapsed on Friday morning.

"We have checked every possible void space and opening that we can get through and I believe ... we have done everything we can to try to assure that there are no people in there alive," said USAID rescue team member Mike Istvan.

The death toll was expected to rise, as about 250-300 people were believed to have been inside when the structure crumbled.

Although 700 students aged three to 20 attended, the school operated in two sessions and so about half that number would have been in the building at the time of collapse, Youth and Sports Minister Evans Lescouflair said.

One teacher who had left the building minutes before it came crashing down told the minister that "a maximum of between 250 to 300 pupils were inside," Lescouflair said.

Authorities have launched an investigation into the collapse and suggested that criminal prosecution could follow. The owner of the school was questioned by police after turning himself in Sunday.

Officials also pledged an investigation into the construction of the school and a survey of other education establishments that might be at possible risk.

"This construction did not meet normal standards. We are going to ask the minister of education to make an inspection of all the schools built in the same way," senator Yvon Bissereth said.

Justice Minister Jean-Joseph Exume lamented the deadly collapse, saying the building never should have held so many.

"It's a real calamity. This building was not suitable for a school," Exume said during a visit to the scene.

Early Monday, a security cordon encircled the area, while workers continued round-the-clock efforts to unearth dozens of bodies believed entombed beneath mounds of metal and concrete.

Teams from the United Nations, the Red Cross, Doctors Without Borders, Haitian police and rescuers from France, the United States and Canada have been scouring the rubble since the school collapsed.

UN engineers and soldiers from the UN mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) have worked to remove heavy pieces of concrete and to contain the large crowds of people.

He said a camera was being used to peer into the pile of rubble and search teams were now clearing away roofing.

Officials have said that the school's head and owner, Pastor Augustin Fortain, was being questioned but so far "has not been formally charged with anything."

At the time of the collapse, builders had been adding a new floor to the school. Witnesses told AFP that Fortain had constructed the building without the help of engineers.

France has offered emergency aid amounting to 20,000 euros (25,000 dollars) to help build a new school in the area.

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