PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti -- Rescue workers dragged corpses from collapsed buildings, dazed homeless wandered the streets and the death toll climbed Wednesday as dozens of aftershocks from a massive earthquake rattled this capital city.
The city's Roman Catholic archbishop was dead. The top U.N. envoy remained missing. And politicians and police struggled to keep the nation from descending into chaos, led by President René Préval, who described stepping over bodies and hearing the cries of those trapped under the rubble of the national Parliament.
It was a day of unfolding calamity.
"I have probably seen 30 or 40 bodies today, but that is just one street, " said Benjamin Hopp, a missionary with the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.
He was gathering bodies and putting them in a pickup truck, a snapshot in suffering that reflected a grim reality. No reliable casualty count emerged even as both Préval and Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive predicted the death toll could reach 100,000.
Rescue workers and frantic family dug through the rubble in the city of more than two million -- some setting up makeshift morgues in churches, others collected identification card off corpses to try to compile a master list of the dead.
President Barack Obama pledged his nation's full support in this "especially cruel and incomprehensible" tragedy, and the first aircraft carrying aid arrived by nightfall.
Workers at the airport unloaded medical supplies and water from a Venezuelan Air Force cargo plane on one portion of the tarmac, while U.S. Coast Guard planes evacuated plainly wounded U.S. government workers and others to the United States.
Blue-helmeted U.N. peacekeepers crisscrossed the runway in armored personnel carriers, and a relief convoy to the U.S. Embassy passed a gruesome sight: Youngsters running down the road, carrying a white, child-sized coffin.
Lionel Wilson, an airport worker, described Tuesday's 7.0 earthquake as "like a war, but it was not a war, " describing how he lay on the floor and watched the earth open in front of him.
"It was Jesus doing his thing, " he said. "I just prayed and prayed and prayed. I felt like I was already dead."
At the Ecole Normale Delmas in the Delmas neighborhood, rescuers and missionaries were piling up the bodies of teenage school girls crushed by concrete. Their faces were smashed and they were wearing orange school uniforms.
"All of the hospitals are packed with people. It is a catastrophe, " Preval told The Miami Herald in his first comments to the world Wednesday morning after inspecting the "unimaginable" damage in several neighborhoods.
"Parliament has collapsed. The tax office has collapsed. Schools have collapsed. Hospitals have collapsed, " he said. "There are a lot of schools that have a lot of dead people in them."
By evening Bellerive told The Miami Herald that public health was a grave concern.
"I am worrying about water, I am worrying about health. We have all those people under buildings who will soon start to decompose. Pretty soon we will have a problem with food."
The Pentagon's Southern Command dispatched a 30-member assessment team to work out of the U.S. Embassy, the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson toward the coast, a reconnaissance plane to survey the damage and Coast Guard aircraft to evacuate some of the 45,000 Americans in Haiti.
Air Force Gen. Douglas Fraser, the Southcom chief, also said the Pentagon might deploy an amphibious Navy ship with a Marine expeditionary unit and possibly thousands of soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division. They could help distribute relief supplies and keep the peace.
Haiti's fragile infrastructure and economy took a blow of incalculable proportions as hotels, the port's cargo cranes and markets crumbled.
But so did the institutions of a civil society.
The parliament building, historic National Palace, and several Roman Catholic Archdiocese buildings fell, including an office at the main cathedral, according to the Vatican, killing Archbishop Joseph Serge Miot and at least 100 priests and seminarians.
As night descended, shantytowns had already sprung up around the capital, including at the presidential palace. People slept in their cars, outdoors on mattresses and wandered the streets with suitcases on their heads -- fearing more devastation as 35 aftershocks struck the region in the first 24 hours.
Haiti's national police chief, Mario Anderson, said a prison collapsed, freeing perhaps 1,000 prisoners to roam the streets at nightfall.
The chief of Haiti's United Nations mission, Hédi Annabi was still listed among an estimated 150 missing U.N. workers in the collapse of the five-story U.N. headquarters. Sixteen U.N. workers were confirmed dead. They included 11 Brazilian peacekeepers and five security forces, three from Jordan and one each from Argentina and Chad.
Makeshift clinics could be seen across the city as outside medical teams swung into action -- Cuban doctors already in Haiti setting up field hospitals, a team of University of Miami doctors to treat and evacuate casualties and medical staff were treating injured in a triage center set up like a clinic in a portion of the U.S. Embassy building.
"It's disgusting, there are dead people all over the place. People are walking around and don't know where to look for their children. I don't know how Haiti is going to recover from this, " said Ducainz Du Buisson, a Haitian American businessman who lives in North Miami and was in Haiti to launch a security business. "I don't see the government ministers doing anything, but I guess a lot of them died too."
Herald staff writer Trenton Daniel contributed to this report from the Dominican Republic. Special Correspondent Stewart Stogel contributed from the United Nations with reporting in Miami from Herald staff writers Elinor Brecher, Nancy San Martin, Carol Rosenberg, Jim Wyss and Luisa Yanez.