The earthquake that broke the back of an already ailing nation struck just before 5 p.m., a time when many Haitians were still at work or school. The 7.0-magnitude tremor was centred near Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s capital, and lasted a mere 45 seconds—a temporal eyeblink that will go down as the nadir of the Caribbean country’s long history of misery and chaos. Shantytowns that litter the island’s southwest peninsula went down domino-style. Larger buildings comprised of cinderblock and unreinforced concrete collapsed like wedding cakes, in many cases with a full complement of their day-to-day occupants inside. The ones left standing quickly emptied; survivors scrambled to help those still inside, tugging at the shards of cement with bare hands.
Fredson Demostherma, a resident of Léogâne, 30 km west of the capital, Port-au-Prince, jumped to safety from a second-floor window in his house when the ground started to rumble. He turned around and watched the building collapse, trapping seven members of his family inside, including an infant. He paid someone with a sledgehammer to help him dig his family, who survived, out. “Haiti’s future is in the hands of other nations, and God,” Demostherma told Maclean’s. Pierre Cherami, who ran an auto parts business in Gressier, just outside of Port-au-Prince, was in his house with his wife and daughter, who perished. “Their names are Denise and Myrline,” he said. “Myrline wasn’t feeling well and was sleeping. My wife was with her. When the quake hit, I saw the wall begin to topple. I tried to hold it up but couldn’t. I recovered both of their bodies. It will be difficult to rebuild my life. I’ve lost everything.”
There were precious few rescues that first evening, and as night fell, residents found themselves in a netherworld of darkness and grief. Magalie Boyer, a World Vision worker based permanently in Port-au-Prince, described the eerie calm of a city cut off from power and deprived of most phone communication. Throughout the night, groups of residents rattled through the streets, offering flashlights and water to the few aid workers who ventured forth, stumbling over the rubble of fallen garden walls, calling out to loved ones. “Every once in a while you would hear this wailing go up,” she said. “It would be someone who had heard bad news or couldn’t find a family member.”
Only when the sun rose did the scale of the destruction set in. At least two-thirds of the buildings in the downtown district of Port-au-Prince known as La Ville were levelled or left teetering. “A sea of devastation” is how one aid worker described the disaster, and even that fell short. René Préval, the Haitian president, drew expressions of disbelief when he floated the possibility that the death toll might top 100,000. Yet by the middle of the next day, crews had recovered more than 50,000 bodies, and Interior Minister Paul Antoine Bien-Aimé pegged the number of dead at 200,000—the greatest human loss since the 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean.
On the streets of Port-au-Prince, corpses were everywhere. Most were rotting, unreachable, under rubble, filling the nearby air with a sour smell that locals fended off by rubbing toothpaste in their nostrils. A woman, a tangle of limbs and rags, lay in the centre of a rubble-filled street. There may have been another body beneath her, but it was impossible to tell. A dust-covered arm reached from the rubble. Elsewhere, another body, charred black and smoking, lay in a ditch, lips burnt away to expose a seemingly brilliant row of white teeth. “People have nowhere to bury their dead,” one man said, pointing to it. “What are they supposed to do?”
Some churned up the few patches of soil available on street corners between the road and the wall of the nearest building. Dozens of bodies were crammed into these tiny spaces. Occasionally a garbage truck made the rounds to pick up corpses piled onto the street overnight, to take them to mass graves outside the city. One such truck tried to park with its cargo of corpses overnight on a street in the Carrefour neighbourhood where hundreds of Haitians without homes, or afraid to sleep in the ones they have, lay thickly on blankets spread over the ground. They rose up and chased the truck away. “The truck had dead people inside,” Jocelyn Mitchell, a burly man of 38, said, scowling. “We can’t have that where we sleep.”
The next morning, Carrefour’s mayor arrived with a security detail of police to deal with whomever had led the demonstration the night before. His men chased a teenager down the street, firing a shotgun above or at him until he stopped running. They drove away with three men under arrest. “That’s the first time I’ve ever seen the mayor come here,” a local resident told Maclean’s. “Because people didn’t want corpses around them. Not to ask how they’re doing, or if they need food or water, but because they protested being surrounded by dead people.”
In a nearby residential neighbourhood, survivors showed a visitor each destroyed home and named those who escaped or died when the building collapsed. “There was a pregnant woman and a baby here,” one says. “We rescued them. Two died here, a man and a woman. We cut the legs off the man to get him out but he died anyway. I helped pull 20 bodies from this building. There are many more inside.”