PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (AP) — Haitians piled bodies along the devastated streets of their capital Wednesday after a powerful earthquake flattened the president's palace, the cathedral, hospitals, schools, the main prison and whole neighborhoods. Officials feared thousands — perhaps more than 100,000 — may have perished but there was no firm count.
Death was everywhere in Port-au-Prince. Bodies of tiny children were piled next to schools. Corpses of women lay on the street with stunned expressions frozen on their faces as flies began to gather. Bodies of men were covered with plastic tarps or cotton sheets.
President Rene Preval said he believes thousands were killed in Tuesday afternoon's magnitude-7.0 quake, and the scope of the destruction prompted other officials to give even higher estimates. Leading Sen. Youri Latortue told The Associated Press that 500,000 could be dead, although he acknowledged that nobody really knows.
"Parliament has collapsed. The tax office has collapsed. Schools have collapsed. Hospitals have collapsed," Preval told the Miami Herald. "There are a lot of schools that have a lot of dead people in them."
Even the main prison in the capital fell down, "and there are reports of escaped inmates," U.N. humanitarian spokeswoman Elisabeth Byrs said in Geneva.
The head of the U.N. peacekeeping mission was missing and the Roman Catholic archbishop of Port-au-Prince was dead.
"The cathedral, the archbishop's office, all the big churches, the seminaries have been reduced to rubble," Archbishop Bernardito Auza, the apostolic envoy to Haiti, told the Vatican news agency FIDES.
The parking lot of the Hotel Villa Creole was a triage center. People sat with injuries and growing infections by the side of rubble-strewn roads, hoping that doctors and aid would come.
The international Red Cross said a third of Haiti's 9 million people may need emergency aid and that it would take a day or two for a clear picture of the damage to emerge.
At first light Wednesday, a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter evacuated four critically injured U.S. Embassy staff to the hospital on the U.S. Naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where the military has been detaining suspected terrorists.
President Barack Obama promised an all-out rescue and humanitarian effort, adding that the U.S. commitment to its hemispheric neighbor will be unwavering.
"We have to be there for them in their hour of need," Obama said.
A small contingent of U.S. ground troops could be on their way soon, although it was unclear whether they would be used for security operations or humanitarian efforts. Gen. Douglas Fraser, commander of the U.S. Southern Command, said roughly 2,000 Marines as part of an expeditionary unit might be deployed aboard a large-deck amphibious ship. Fraser said the ship could provide medical help.
Other nations — from Iceland to Venezuela — said they would start sending in aid workers and rescue teams. Cuba said its existing field hospitals in Haiti had already treated hundreds of victims. The United Nations said Port-au-Prince's main airport was "fully operational" and open to relief flights.
The U.S. Navy aircraft carrier, USS Carl Vinson, is under way and expected to arrive off the coast of Haiti Thursday. Additional U.S. Navy ships are under way to Haiti, a statement from the Southern Command said.
Aftershocks continued to rattle the capital of 2 million people as women covered in dust clawed out of debris, wailing. Stunned people wandered the streets holding hands. Thousands gathered in public squares to sing hymns.
U.N. humanitarian chief John Holmes said it was possible that the death toll "will be in the thousands."
"Initial reports suggest a high number of casualties and, of course, widespread damage but I don't have any figure that I can give you with any reliability of what the number of casualties will be," Holmes said.
People pulled bodies from collapsed homes, covering them with sheets by the side of the road. Passers-by lifted the sheets to see if loved ones were underneath. Outside a crumbled building, the bodies of five children and three adults lay in a pile.
The prominent died along with the poor: the body of Archbishop Joseph Serge Miot, 63, was found in the ruins of his office, said the Rev. Pierre Le Beller of the Saint Jacques Missionary Center in Landivisiau, France. He told The Associated Press by telephone that fellow missionaries in Haiti had told him they found Miot's body.
Preval told the Herald that Haiti's Senate president was among those trapped alive inside the Parliament building. Much of the National Palace pancaked on itself.
The international Red Cross and other aid groups announced plans for major relief operations in the Western Hemisphere's poorest country.
Many will have to help their own staff as well as stricken Haitians. Taiwan said its embassy was destroyed and the ambassador hospitalized. Spain said its embassy was badly damaged and France said its embassy also suffered damage.
Tens of thousands of people lost their homes as buildings that were flimsy and dangerous even under normal conditions collapsed. Nobody offered an estimate of the dead, but the numbers were clearly enormous.
"The hospitals cannot handle all these victims," said Dr. Louis-Gerard Gilles.
American Red Cross spokesman Eric Porterfield said that the agency has already exhausted the small amount of medical equipment and medical supplies it had in Haiti and is sending more supplies, though it was not clear when they would arrive.Data Watch: Finding earthquake data on the Web Red Cross: How to help AP Interactive: Haiti Earthquake
HOW TO HELP To donate $10 to the American Red Cross to aid victims of the earthquake in Haiti, text Haiti 90999.