A powerful earthquake struck Haiti's capital on Tuesday with withering force, toppling everything from simple shacks to the ornate National Palace and the headquarters of U.N. peacekeepers. The dead and injured lay in the streets even as strong aftershocks rippled through the impoverished Caribbean country.
Associated Press journalists based in Port-au-Prince said the damage from the quake -- the most powerful to hit Haiti in more than 200 years -- is staggering even in a country accustomed to tragedy and disaster.
Women covered in dust crawled from the rubble wailing as others wandered through the streets holding hands. Thousands gathered in public squares late into the night, singing hymns. Many gravely injured people still sat in the streets early Wednesday, pleading for doctors. With almost no emergency services to speak of, the survivors had few other options.
Thousands of buildings were damaged and destroyed throughout the city, and for hours after the quake the air was filled with a choking dust from the debris of fallen buildings.
The scope of the disaster remained unclear, and even a rough estimate of the number of casualties was impossible. But it was clear from a tour of the capital that tens of thousands of people had lost their homes and that many had perished. Many buildings in Haiti are flimsy and dangerous even under normal conditions.
"The hospitals cannot handle all these victims," said Louis-Gerard Gilles, a doctor and former senator, as he helped survivors. "Haiti needs to pray. We all need to pray together."
An Associated Press videographer saw a wrecked hospital where people screamed for help in Petionville, a hillside Port-au-Prince district that is home to many diplomats and wealthy Haitians as well as many poor people.
At a collapsed four-story apartment building, a girl of about 16 stood atop a car, trying to peer inside as several men pulled at a foot sticking out in an attempt to extricate the body. She said her family was inside.
U.N. peacekeepers, most of whom are from Brazil, were trying to rescue survivors from their collapsed five-story headquarters, but U.N. peacekeeping chief Alain Le Roy said late Tuesday that "as we speak no one has been rescued."
"We know there will be casualties but we cannot give figures for the time being," he said.
Many U.N. personnel were missing, he said, including mission chief Hedi Annabi, who was in the building when the quake struck. Some 9,000 peacekeepers have been in Haiti since a 2004 rebellion ousted the president.
Taiwan's Foreign Ministry said its embassy was destroyed and the ambassador hospitalized for undisclosed injuries.
The National Palace crumbled into itself, but Haiti's ambassador to Mexico Robert Manuel said President Rene Preval and his wife survived the earthquake. He had no details.
The 7.0-magnitude quake struck at 4:53 p.m. Tuesday, centered 10 miles (15 kilometers) west of Port-au-Prince at a depth of 5 miles (8 kilometers), the U.S. Geological Survey said. USGS geophysicist Kristin Marano called it the strongest earthquake since 1770 in what is now Haiti. In 1946, a magnitude-8.1 quake struck the Dominican Republic and also shook Haiti, producing a tsunami that killed 1,790 people.
The temblor appeared to have occurred along a strike-slip fault, where one side of a vertical fault slips horizontally past the other, said earthquake expert Tom Jordan at the University of Southern California. The quake's size and proximity to populated Port-au-Prince likely caused widespread casualties and structural damage, he said.
"It's going to be a real killer," he said. "Whenever something like this happens, you just hope for the best."
Most of Haiti's 9 million people are desperately poor, and after years of political instability the country has no real construction standards. In November 2008, following the collapse of a school in Petionville, the mayor of Port-au-Prince estimated about 60 percent of the buildings were shoddily built and unsafe in normal circumstances.
Tuesday's quake was felt in the Dominican Republic, which shares a border with Haiti on the island of Hispaniola, and some panicked residents in the capital of Santo Domingo fled from their shaking homes. But no major damage was reported there. In eastern Cuba, houses shook but there were also no reports of significant damage.
"We felt it very strongly and I would say for a long time. We had time to evacuate," said Monsignor Dionisio Garcia, archbishop of Santiago.
The damage in Haiti, however, was clearly vast.
State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said in Washington that U.S. Embassy personnel were "literally in the dark" after power failed.
"They reported structures down. They reported a lot of walls down. They did see a number of bodies in the street and on the sidewalk that had been hit by debris. So clearly, there's going to be serious loss of life in this," he said.
The Diocese of Norwich, Connecticut, said at least two Americans working at its Haitian aid mission were believed trapped in rubble.
With phone service erratic, much of the early communication came from social media such as Twitter. Richard Morse, a well-known musician who manages the famed Olafson Hotel, kept up a stream of dispatches on the aftershocks and damage reports. The news, based mostly on second-hand reports and photos, was disturbing, with people screaming in fear and roads blocked with debris. Belair, a slum even in the best of times, was said to be "a broken mess."
"Everybody is just totally, totally freaked out and shaken," said Henry Bahn, a U.S. Department of Agriculture official visiting Port-au-Prince. "The sky is just gray with dust.
Bahn said there were rocks strewn about and he saw a ravine where several homes had stood: "It's just full of collapsed walls and rubble and barbed wire."
In the community of Thomassin, just outside Port-au-Prince, Alain Denis said neighbors told him the only road to the capital had been cut and phones were all dead so it was hard to determine the extent of the damage.
"At this point, everything is a rumor," he said. "It's dark. It's nighttime."
Jocelyn Valcin, a resident of Boynton Beach, Florida, who flew in to Miami International Airport from Port-au-Prince on Tuesday evening, said he was at the airport when the earthquake hit.
"The whole building was cracked down," Valcin said. "The whole outside deteriorated."
Former President Bill Clinton, the U.N.'s special envoy for Haiti, issued a statement saying his office would do whatever he could to help the nation recover and rebuild.
"My thoughts and prayers are with the people of Haiti," he said.
The United States was sending disaster rescue teams and President Barack Obama said the U.S. stood ready to help Haiti. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said from Honolulu that the U.S. was offering full assistance -- civilian and military.
Venezuelan Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro said his government planned to send a military aircraft carrying canned foods, medicine and drinking water and also would dispatch a team of 50 rescue workers.
Mexico, which suffered a devastating earthquake in 1985 that killed some 10,000 people, was sending a team including doctors, search and rescue dogs and infrastructure damage experts, said Salvador Beltran, the undersecretary of foreign relations for Latin America and the Caribbean.
Haitian musician Wyclef Jean urged his fans to donate to earthquake relief efforts: "We must think ahead for the aftershock, the people will need food, medicine, shelter, etc.," Jean said on his Web site.
Eva DeHart at the humanitarian organization For Haiti With Love in Palm Harbor, Florida, said colleagues at the group's base in Cap Haitien reported that northern town was spared damage. But she said damage to government buildings in the capital would make coordinating aid difficult.
In Miami's Little Haiti neighborhood, dozens of people gathered at the Veye-Yo community center, where a pastor led them in prayer. Members embraced each other as they tried to contact relatives back home.
Tony Jeanthenor said he had succeeded in reaching a family friend in Haiti who told of hearing people cry out for help from under debris.
"The level of anxiety is high," Jeanthenor said. "Haiti has been through trauma since 2004, from coup d'etat to hurricanes, now earthquakes."
Associated Press videographer Pierre Richard Luxama in Haiti and AP writers David Koop and Olga R. Rodriguez in Mexico City; David McFadden and Danica Coto in San Juan, Puerto Rico; Matthew Lee in Washington; Alicia Chang in Los Angeles, Andrea Rodriguez in Havana, Tamara Lush in Tampa, Fla., and Jennifer Kay and Christine Armario in Miami contributed to this report.