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Death Toll Climbs to 75 in Haiti School Collapse

AP081107023327

PETIONVILLE, Haiti -- 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 told The Associated Press that structures throughout Haiti are at similar risk because of poor construction and a lack of government oversight.

"It's not just schools, it's where people live, it's churches," he said at the site of the collapse as crews picked through the wreckage in search of more victims.

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.

"There are a lot of rumors, you know," said Cap Haitien Fire Chief Ardouin Zephirin, who was brought in from Haiti's second-largest city to help with the disaster on the outskirts of the capital.

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 AP. "The next time the mayor speaks and the authorities speak, people will listen."

International aid was trickling in.

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.

"I see a dramatic turnabout in the situation once they're here," he said. "We've done everything we've possibly can practically from the first hour."

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.

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.

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.

U.N. peacekeepers were sent to Haiti following the bloody ouster of former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 2004 and have improved security by fighting gangs and training local police.

Associated Press writer Nicole Chavranski contributed to this report from Paris.

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