Eric Nicolas heard a crash, then raced across a ravine to see a plume of dust: The school his two sons attend had vanished.
The concrete building collapsed during late morning-classes on Friday, killing 47 people and injuring many more. Rescuers used bare hands to pull bleeding students from the wreckage. By late afternoon Nicolas learned his 17-year-old son Frantzini had skipped classes and was safe, but 8-year-old Erickson was still among the missing.
Nicolas, a 60-year-old house painter, knew the building had problems. After part of the facade fell eight years ago, its downhill neighbors began selling their homes out of fear of a total collapse. But he wanted to keep his sons close to home, where he would not worry as much about the scourge of child kidnappings. "They said the school was going to fall. I just never thought it would really happen," he said.
The building's third story was still under construction, and Petionville Mayor Claire Lydie Parent told The Associated Press she suspects a structural defect caused the collapse, not the recent rains.
Police commissioner Francene Moreau says the preacher who runs the church-operated school could face criminal charges. Parent said roughly 500 students from kindergarten through high school attend the school, College La Promesse, in the hills above Port-au-Prince. She did not know how many were inside when it collapsed late on Friday morning.
An unknown number of children were believed buried in the rubble of the concrete building, and the death toll was likely to go higher, Yphosiane Vil, a civil protection official, told the AP at the scene. About 39 bodies were brought to a Port-au-Prince morgue and another eight people died at a trauma center. Volunteers arrived at the collapsed school with shovels and axes and said they would try to deliver water to others trapped inside. A swelling crowd erupted with wails and prayers as the injured were carried away and emergency vehicles raced up a winding hill to the school.
"My child, my child!" one mother yelled.
United Nations peacekeepers and Haitian police tried to clear a path for three battalions of military engineers from Brazil, Chile and Ecuador to assist in the rescue.
The Dominican Republic, which shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti, was sending two helicopters to help, Dominican Health Minister Bautista Rojas said. French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner promised to send a rescue team as soon possible. Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, has been struggling to recover from widespread riots over rising food prices, a string of hurricanes and tropical storms that killed nearly 800 people.
On his meager pay, Nicolas could only pay the school's $1,500 yearly enrollment fee for two of his six children. By keeping them close to home, he also was glad they could return home for lunch without paying for a group taxi. But he worried about the school's stability.
"I heard the echo of the crash and I said, 'Maybe that's the school,"' he said. "When I got there I saw all the kids getting pulled out. But I didn't see mine."
For hours, he pushed his way through the crowd, looking for his sons.
Screams of "My child!" and "Oh, my friend!" rang out while self-appointed guardians kicked and punched disconsolate parents trying to enter the wreckage. Nicolas struggled against police batons and UN soldiers.
"I have to fight to stay here," he said.