Haiti rescue continues as man is pulled alive from hotel

Miami HeraldJanuary 23, 2010 

PORT-AU-PRINCE — International rescue crews pulled a man alive from the wreckage of a hotel here Saturday, as Haitian government officials said they were still looking for earthquake survivors — despite earlier reports that they had called off search and rescue efforts.

"There has been a misinterpretation of the president's declaration," Haitian Minister of Communications Marie Laurence Lassegue told The Miami Herald.

Before making a final decision on future search and rescue efforts, Haitian officials were waiting for operators on the ground to give President Rene Preval their recommendation — 11 days after a 7.0-magnitude earthquake destroyed Haiti's capital.

Earlier Saturday, the Associated Press, citing a United Nations statement released Friday, reported that Haiti's government had declared its search and rescue phase for survivors over. But U.N. officials in Haiti told The Miami Herald the government did not tell them it was calling off those efforts.

Amid the confusion, other rescue teams were still searching for survivors, a U.N. spokeswoman told the Associated Press.

At the Napoli hotel in downtown Port-au-Prince, a French crew working with a Greek team and rescuers from Los Angeles County and Fairfax County, Va., extricated Wismond Extantus, 22, alive from the rubble after hours of frantic work.

Extantus, wearing a black shirt and jeans, was covered with an oxygen mask and whisked away in an ambulance.

Rescuers worked frantically for hours with drills and sledgehammers to save Extantus, a cashier in a market inside the hotel.

His brother, Jean-Pierre, said he had been coming daily to the rubble of the collapsed hotel, searching for some sign of his brother, to no avail. On Saturday, two men rummaging through the ruins heard a knock.

"He said, 'Please tell my family I'm alive,'" Jean-Pierre remembered.

The two men rushed to Jean-Pierre, who was sitting nearby. Jean-Pierre flagged down a passing Greek documentary crew — and they called Greek rescue crews, who notified the French. Then the Americans joined the effort.

Wismond Extantus was trapped under two layers of concrete, said Los Angeles County Fire Department Capt. Miguel Garcia.

"We were getting ready to switch gears from rescue and look — goes to show you it can still happen," Garcia said.

Rescuers opened up a hole in the debris allowing Extantus to see light. He was also given water while crews worked to free him, said Christophe Renou of the French Civil Protection's search and rescue team.

"It's a miracle, definitely," he said.

The team leader of the Greek Hellenic rescue team said the trapped man told them six more were people were buried in the rubble of the hotel.

But rescuers have not been able to speak to anyone else, and the man said the others were no longer moving — leading rescuers to believe they are dead, Renou said.

On Friday, rescue workers with Israeli Defense Forces freed a 22-year-old man entombed in the ruins of Port-au-Prince for 10 days. All together, 132 people were rescued from the rubble between Jan. 13 and 21, according to the U.N.

Some 49 international search and rescue teams — down from 67, were still in Haiti as of Saturday, the U.N. said.

As of Friday, the Haitian government had confirmed 111,481 deaths and accounted for some 609,000 people without shelter in the Port-au-Prince metropolitan area, according to the U.N. statement from the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

Earlier estimates said the 7.0-magnitude quake that struck Jan. 12 killed 200,000 and left about 1.5 million Haitians homeless nationwide.

Countless dead remain buried in thousands of collapsed and toppled buildings in Port-au-Prince, while as many as 200,000 have fled the city of 2 million, the U.S. Agency for International Development reported, citing a Haitian survey of bus stations and of sources in destination towns.

On Saturday, more than 1,000 mourners gathered near the ruins of the capital's shattered cathedral to pay final respects to Msgr. Joseph Serge Miot, the archbishop of Port-au-Prince, and Charles Benoit, the vicar, in a somber ceremony that doubled as a symbolic funeral for all the dead.

Only a small number of funerals have been held since the earthquake, with most people buried anonymously in mass graves on the outskirts of the city.

The international community is scrambling to keep disease and injury from claiming more victims.

The U.N. said anywhere from 500,000 to 700,000 survivors are living in squalid tent cities that have sprouted around Port-au-Prince. Of the 350 encampments that have been surveyed, only six have access to drinking water, the U.N. reported. That has left the survivors, many injured and weak with hunger, vulnerable to disease.

On Saturday, officials with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, World Health Organization and USAID established a public health surveillance system to begin tracking with the aim of preventing — emerging health threats in some of the 600 camps that are now housing those without homes.

Public health experts said they fear an outbreak of disease such as measles could cut through the camps rapidly, causing more deaths.

"It's one thing to save someone immediately after the earthquake with surgery, but we don't want them to die two weeks later from bad water," said Lise Martel, a public health advisor for the CDC. "It's not as dramatic as broken bones, but we've got to think long term what we can do to make sure nothing spreads."

Follow continuing coverage of this story at MiamiHerald.com

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