A mighty earthquake rocked the small, impoverished island nation of Haiti on Tuesday, collapsing a hospital, the presidential palace and other buildings, triggering massive panic and claiming an as-yet uncounted number of lives -- perhaps thousands.
Screams for help emanated from felled buildings, and chaos reigned. One diplomat called the quake a "catastrophe" in one of the countries least equipped to handle it. More than 30 aftershocks have been recorded.
The devastating earthquake has left an estimated 3 million people in need of emergency aid, a Red Cross official said today. The aid organization said Haiti's disaster relief teams were "completely overwhelmed."
France's foreign minister says the head of the U.N. mission in Haiti appears to have died in the earthquake.
Bernard Kouchner said the French ambassador had visited the devastated U.N. headquarters building in Port-au-Prince and said "everyone who was in the building is apparently dead" including Tunisian diplomat Hedi Annabi Annabi. The U.N. has maintained a peacekeeping force in Haiti since 2004.
As night fell on the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince, a city of 2 million, reports emerged of extensive destruction; homes and buildings a shambles; trapped, seriously injured victims; and residents sleeping in streets.
Tsunami alerts were issued for Cuba, the Bahamas and much of the Caribbean, and numerous aftershocks were reported.
The quake, one of the most powerful ever in the region, measured a preliminary magnitude of 7.0. It was centered about 10 miles west of Port-au-Prince and was shallow, just five miles deep. It struck about 4:53 p.m., hitting one of the city's most densely populated areas.
All of that augured vast damage and overwhelming casualties. Electricity in the capital was out Tuesday night, telephone communications were down, and the airport was closed.
"We are hearing of sheer devastation," said Caryl Stern, president of the U.S. Fund for UNICEF, which has 100 workers in Haiti. UNICEF employees in Port-au-Prince reported seeing a school collapse with children inside.
"It's horrible," Stern said. "The worst earthquake in such a poor region. You are starting from behind the eight ball."
Photos emerging from Haiti showed buildings in rubble and houses tumbled down ravines. Thousands of people gathered in public squares late into the night, singing hymns, the Associated Press reported.
The poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, Haiti, with a population of about 9 million, shares a border with the Dominican Republic on the island of Hispaniola. Some residents reportedly felt some shaking in Santo Domingo, the Dominican capital, but no serious damage was reported.
Already battered in recent years by storms, military coups and gang violence, much of Haiti is a hodgepodge of slums, shoddy construction and people living on the edge.
"I can hear very distressed people . . . a lot of distress, people wailing, trying to find loved ones trapped under the rubble," Ian Rodgers, with Save the Children in Port-au-Prince, told CNN by telephone Tuesday evening.
A spokeswoman for Catholic Relief Services said the group's representative in Haiti, Karel Zelenka, described "total disaster and chaos" before the telephone line went dead. Zelenka told colleagues that the Haitian capital was covered with dust.
"He estimates there must be thousands of people dead," the spokeswoman, Sara Fajardo, said in an interview from the group's office in Maryland.
Fajardo said the group has stockpiles of food and other goods to serve 5,000 families, but aid workers worry that relief efforts could be hampered by poor road conditions and lack of security.
Haiti's ambassador to the U.S., Raymond Joseph, said in Washington that he spoke to officials in Port-au-Prince and that President Rene Preval was safe but his regal headquarters was badly damaged. He quoted a senior Haitian official as saying that "buildings were crumbling right and left" near the presidential palace.
"I think it is really a catastrophe of major proportions," Joseph said.
In Washington, President Obama pledged to help the crippled country. Other countries also announced plans to send assistance.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton described the disaster as catastrophic.
"The United States is offering our full assistance to Haiti and to others in the region," Clinton said from Honolulu. "We will be providing both civilian and military disaster relief and humanitarian assistance. And our prayers are with the people who have suffered, their families, and their loved ones."
Philip J. Crowley, the State Department's senior spokesman, said U.S. Embassy personnel have reported widespread damage, including collapsed buildings and walls, and bodies in the streets. The presidential palace, a graceful white French colonial structure visited by President Clinton in 1995, has sustained heavy damage, Crowley said.
U.S. officials plan to send teams to assess Haiti's needs, but they first need to determine whether airport runways are able to receive cargo planes carrying aid, Crowley said.
A spokesman for U.S. Southern Command, which oversees American military operations in the Caribbean and South America, said officials were assessing what assistance or aid might be needed.
"We are monitoring the situation and staying in close contact with the State Department," said Jose Ruiz, a spokesman for the command.
The Associated Press said its reporters saw a hospital collapse in the wealthy suburb of Petionville, which overlooks the capital.
"Within a minute of the quake . . . soil, dust and smoke rose up over the city, a blanket that completely covered the city and obscured it for about 12 minutes until the atmospheric conditions dissipated the dust," Mike Godfrey, who works as a contractor for USAID, told CNN from Port-au-Prince.
People communicating by social media such as Twitter said they felt the quake in Cap-Haitien, in the north, but there was little damage.
Former President Clinton, the U.N.'s special envoy for Haiti, issued a statement saying his office would do whatever it could to help. Sources said he was likely to be dispatched to the island as one of the Obama administration's first gestures.
Nan Buzard of the American Red Cross, who is mobilizing teams to travel to Haiti, said, "It is very grim."
Times staff writers Ken Ellingwood in Mexico City, and Christi Parsons, Paul Richter, Julian E. Barnes in Washington and Times wire services contributed to this report.