Building Owner Arrested as Death Toll Climbs to 88 in Haitian School Collapse | NBC New York

Building Owner Arrested as Death Toll Climbs to 88 in Haitian School Collapse



    Fireman Nathaniel Lasseur carries a child who was rescued from under the rubble of a school that collapsed in Petionville, Haiti, Friday, Nov. 7.

    Haitian police on Sunday were holding the owner of a school that collapsed, killing at least 88 people and setting off a desperate search for survivors trapped in tons of rubble.

    Fortin Augustin, the preacher who owns and built College La Promesse in suburban Port-au-Prince, was arrested late Saturday and charged with involuntary manslaughter, police spokesman Garry Desrosier said.

    Augustin was being held at a police station in Haiti's capital, while a U.S. 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 and cradled them in their arms Saturday as they ran toward ambulances, U.N. police spokesman Andre Leclerc said.

    Leclerc said he did not know the extent of the injuries to the two girls, ages 3 and 5, and two boys, a 7-year-old and a teenager. But he added the 3-year-old had a cut on her head and seemed to be OK.

    "She was talking and drinking juice," Leclerc said.

    Nadia Lochard, civil protection coordinator for the western region that includes Petionville, said the death toll rose to 84 on Saturday, with 150 others injured and many more still missing.

    Later, U.S. 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 Lochard's death toll, said Evan Lewis, a member of a 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 were trying 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, Lochard said.

    Thousands of Haitians cheered and shouted directions as trucks carried oxygen and medical supplies down the mountain road Saturday. By nightfall, hundreds stood in the shadows across a ravine behind the collapsed school watching rescuers pick through the rubble amid floodlights.

    Angelique Toussaint kept vigil on a rooftop overlooking the rubble Saturday and prayed that her 13-year-old granddaughter, Velouna, would be saved. Her three other grandchildren were found alive on Friday, and one granddaughter underwent an operation for a severely broken leg.

    Dressed in her white church clothes, the 55-year-old Roman Catholic said she had attended a group prayer for missing children. Velouna's parents had gone home, exhausted from the oppressive heat and endless waiting as rescuers struggled to work around a hanging concrete slab that could not be safely removed.

    "I think they're doing a good job. It's a little slow, but I'm relieved all these people are helping," Toussaint said.

    Local authorities used their bare hands to pull bleeding students from the wreckage before heavy equipment and international teams arrived late Friday and Saturday to help, including some 38 search-and-rescue officials and four rescue dogs from Virginia. France also sent a team of 15 firefighters and doctors from the island of Martinique.

    Neighbors told French rescuers they'd heard children's voices under the rubble on Friday night and tried to pass them some cookies. But at that moment, the teetering ruins shifted and crashed down, silencing their cries, said Daniel Vigee, head of the Martinique-based French rescue team.

    And as they readied to work through the night on Saturday, U.S. rescuers only heard silence, said Capt. Michael Istvan, operations chief for the Fairfax County Urban Search and Rescue team.

    Haiti, the poorest and most politically tumultuous country in the Western Hemisphere, has struggled this year to recover from riots over rising food prices and a string of hurricanes and tropical storms that killed nearly 800 people.Rescuers digging through a collapsed school in Haiti pulled more bodies from sandwiched slabs of concrete, raising the death toll to 75 on Saturday as crews continued searching for survivors.

    President Rene Preval said poor construction, including a lack of steel reinforcement, was to blame for Friday's collapse of the concrete College La Promesse in Petionville. Roughly 500 children and teenagers typically crowded into the three-story building.

    Preval said a previous mayor of Petionville had tried to halt the expansion of La Promesse over safety concerns but the effort faltered when a new mayor came into power in the hillside Port-au-Prince suburb.

    "We have got to have a consistent policy that when one administration leaves office the next continues its work," the president told the Associated Press. "The next time the mayor speaks and the authorities speak, people will listen."

    Doctors Without Borders was treating more than 80 people, many with serious injuries, said Francois Servranckx, a spokesman for the aid group.

    Petionville Mayor Claire Lydie Parent said at least 17 students were found crushed in a single classroom on Saturday but the report was denied by a doctor and firefighter at the scene.

    Thousands looked on from beside the school and across the valley, cheering each time a live student was extricated from the debris. One student who emerged and was lifted on a stretcher cried and made the sign of the cross over and over.

    Thousands of Haitian menial laborers live in collapse-prone hillside slums around the capital to be near the mansions of the foreign diplomats, U.N. staff and wealthy elite for whom they work.

    Preval said that structures throughout Haiti are at similar risk because of poor construction and a lack of government oversight.

    Parents said they toiled endlessly throughout the year to afford the school's $1,500 tuition in hopes of empowering their children to someday escape poverty.

    Haiti, the poorest and most politically tumultuous country in the Western Hemisphere, has been struggling to recover this year from riots over rising food prices and a string of hurricanes and tropical storms that killed nearly 800 people.

    Nearly 40 search-and-rescue officials from Fairfax, Virginia, were expected to arrive with dogs by Saturday afternoon, said Alexandre Deprez, acting director of the local U.S. Agency for International Development.

    The Dominican Republic, which shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti, was sending two helicopters to help, Dominican Health Minister Bautista Rojas said.

    France also sent a team of 15 firefighters and doctors with two rescue dogs. A French civil protection official, Commandant Patrick Vailli, said Saturday that the workers spotted five people believed to be alive in the school's two basements and recovered two bodies.

    Haitian Police commissioner Francene Moreau said the minister who runs the church-operated school could face criminal charges. Efforts to reach the preacher were not successful.

    Hundreds of children in central China perished last May when schools collapsed after an earthquake there.