PETIONVILLE, HAITI // Police have arrested the owner of a Haitian school that collapsed on top of students and teachers during school hours, killing at least 88 people and launching a frantic search for survivors amid tons of concrete rubble. Fortin Augustin, the preacher who owns and built College La Promesse in suburban Port-au-Prince, was arrested on Saturday and charged with involuntary manslaughter, said police spokesman Garry Desrosier.
Mr Augustin was being held at a police station in Haiti's capital as a US rescue crew searched overnight for survivors of Friday's collapse of the three-story building, which normally holds 500 students and teachers. In a rare moment of joy in a grim task, Haitian rescuers pulled four children alive from the rubble yesterday and cradled them in their arms as they ran toward ambulances, said the UN police spokesman Andre Leclerc.
Mr Leclerc said he did not know the extent of the injuries to the two girls, aged three and five-years-old, and two boys, a seven-year-old and a teenager. But he added the three-year-old had a cut on her head but seemed to be all right. "She was talking and drinking juice," Mr Leclerc said. Nadia Lochard, civil protection co-ordinator for the western region that includes Petionville, said the death toll rose to 84 yesterday, with 150 others injured and many more still missing.
Later, US rescuers using digital cameras on long poles to look under the rubble found six or seven bodies, but think that two of them were already included in Ms Lochard's death toll, said Evan Lewis, a member of the team from Fairfax County, Virginia. In the two days of rescues, parents clutched pictures of their children as they watched rescue workers sidestep human limbs sticking out from the rubble. Riot police chased away several Haitians who found their way past police barriers and tried to excavate the site themselves.
Roughly 500 students typically crowded into the hillside school, which had been holding a party the day of the collapse, exempting students from wearing uniforms and complicating efforts to identify their bodies, Ms Lochard said. Thousands of Haitians cheered and shouted directions as lorries carried oxygen and medical supplies down the mountain road on Saturday. By nightfall, hundreds stood in the shadows across a ravine behind the collapsed school watching rescuers pick through the rubble amid floodlights.
France also sent a team of 15 firefighters and doctors from the nearby island of Martinique. President Rene Preval, who has visited the concrete school three times since its collapse, said poor construction and a lack of steel reinforcements were to blame and warned that structures throughout Haiti run a similar risk. "It's not just schools, it's where people live, it's churches," Mr Preval said as crews picked through the wreckage.
Parents said they had toiled endlessly to afford the school's US$1,500 (Dh5,500) tuition in hopes of empowering their children to someday escape poverty in the capital's hillside suburb. *AP