PETION VILLE – La Promesse School was built shabbily with the promise of educating a generation of Haitians. But last Friday, that promise became a death trap as roughly 100 students and teachers died when the building collapsed like a house of matches. The incident left scores of other people badly injured in the Nerettes neighborhood of Petion-Ville.
Officials at the General Hospital, the country’s largest, were forced to do triage and asked people who don’t suffer life-threatening injuries to make room for those critical hurt because it was above capacity at a time when doctors and nurses are on strike.
The school’s owner and builder, Protestant preacher Fortin Augustin, turned himself in to authorities Saturday on charges of involuntary manslaughter, police spokesman Garry Desrosier said. Minister of Justice and Public Security Jean Joseph Exume said the case was still being investigated but the owner could face up to life in prison.
The death rattled a nation that has seen more than its fair share of tragedy in recent months. The school housed kindergarten all the way up to high school students. Parties and other activities were cancelled. The incident also stirred debates across the airwaves as commentators and callers discussed the country’s precarious and anarchic construction that seems to be the norm rather than the exception.
As late as Monday, friends continue to cling to hope that some people might still be alive under the rubble even as rescue workers had concluded that there were no signs of life after scanning the area with equipments that can pick up signs of life.
Rescue workers were probing spots where neighbors claimed to have heard voices or received cell phone calls from trapped survivors, without success. Finally, before dawn Monday, they opened up new areas to search by tearing down a two-story high concrete slab that had been hanging precariously since the collapse.
Firefighters were flown in by the U.S. Agency for International Development, and an eight-person military team from the U.S. Southern Command also helped. They had warned that removing the wall could be too dangerous to rescuers and any potential survivors, but Haitians removed it anyway using hand-held power tools as hopes dimmed.
It was unclear how many people were in the building when it collapsed, though the school is believed to have had about 500 students. Haitian officials said some had time to escape when it began to fall, and it was not known how many were pulled out unharmed on Friday.
Some students weren’t at the school during the collapse because La Promesse was holding a party requiring a donation 25 gourdes (63 cents) that poorer families could not afford, said Deputy Steven Benoit, who represents the area in the Chamber of Deputies.
“A lot of students had their lives saved because they couldn’t get in,” Benoit said.
The tragedy at the school — built along a ravine in a slum below a relatively wealthy enclave near Port-au-Prince — has brought more attention to chronic poverty in Haiti, where neighborhoods rise up in chaotic jigsaws and building codes are widely ignored.
President Rene Preval has made several visits to the disaster site, blaming the collapse on constant government turnover and a general disrespect for the law.
“There is a code already, but they don’t follow it. What we need is political stability,” Preval told the AP.
More than 1.8 million of Haiti’s 9 million people, according to one lawmaker’s estimate, live in ramshackle slums that blanket mountainsides with squalid homes, shabby churches and poorly constructed schools like the one that tumbled down Friday.
Anger and frustration over the painstakingly slow pace of the rescue effort has boiled over. On Sunday, about 100 people rushed the wreckage and began trying to pull down the massive concrete slab. Thousands of onlookers cheered them before Haitian police and U.N. peacekeepers drove them back with batons and riot shields.
Neighbors said they have long complained that the three-story school concrete block building was unsafe, and people living nearby have been trying to sell their homes since part of it collapsed eight years ago.
“You can see that some sections just have one iron (reinforcing) bar. That’s not enough to hold it,” said 55-year-old Notez Pierre-Louis, who pulled her children out and sent them to a less expensive school. “I said all the time, one day this is going to fall on my house.”
Houses immediately below the school were destroyed in the collapse. Pierre-Louis’ home, farther down the hill, was spared.
One woman was holding a child tightly when she was asked if it was her daughter, she said no.
“I have four children in there and since I’m a mother I wanted to hold on to her for comfort,” she told local television as she sobbed uncontrollably.
Haitians are beginning to wonder whether they are cursed by bad luck. But the problems plaguing Haiti for the most part, are men- made disasters. A string of weak central and an inexistent local government has left the country feeling lawless, a case that was underscored during the school collapse and the slow or the inability to respond adequately to disasters.
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