PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti - Precious water, food and early glimmers of hope began reaching parched and hungry earthquake survivors Saturday on the streets of the ruined Haitian capital, but the island's despair threatened to spark a frenzy in places.
"People are so desperate for food that they are going crazy," said accountant Henry Ounche, standing in a crowd of hundreds who fought one another as U.S. military helicopters clattered overhead carrying aid.
Across the hilly, steamy city, people choked on the stench of death, and hope faded by the hour for finding many more victims alive in the rubble, four days after Tuesday's catastrophic earthquake.
Still, here and there, the murmur of buried victims spurred rescue crews on, even as aftershocks threatened to finish off crumbling buildings.
"No one's alive in there," a woman sobbed outside the wrecked Montana Hotel.
But hope wouldn't die. "We can hear a survivor!" search crew chief Alexander Luque of Namibia later reported. His men dug on.
Nobody knew how many were dead. In a fresh estimate, the Pan American Health Organization said 50,000 to 100,000 people perished in the quake. Haiti's prime minister, Jean-Max Bellerive, told The Associated Press that 100,000 would "seem to be the minimum." Truckloads of corpses were being trundled to mass graves.
A U.N. humanitarian spokeswoman declared the quake the worst disaster the international organization has ever faced, since so much government and U.N. capacity in the country was demolished. In that way, Elisabeth Byrs said in Geneva, it's worse than the cataclysmic Asian tsunami of 2004: "Everything is damaged."
The U.N. also announced that the body of Haiti mission chief Hedi Annabi had been found in the rubble of collapsed headquarters.
Yet, despite the obstacles, the pace of aid delivery was picking up.
The Haitian government had established 14 distribution points for food and other supplies, and U.S. Army helicopters were reconnoitering for more. With eight city hospitals destroyed or damaged, aid groups opened five emergency health centers. Vital gear, such as water-purification units, was arriving from abroad.
On a hillside golf course overlooking the stricken capital, paratroopers of the U.S. 82nd Airborne Division set up a base for handing out water and food.
After the initial frenzy among the waiting crowd, when helicopters could only hover and toss out their cargo, a second flight landed and soldiers passed food out to an orderly line of Haitians.
More American help was on the way: The U.S. Navy hospital ship Comfort steamed from the port of Baltimore on Saturday and was scheduled to arrive here Thursday. More than 2,000 Marines were set to sail from North Carolina, to support aid delivery and provide security.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton flew into Port-au-Prince to offer assurances of U.S. help and "to be sure we are as responsive as we need to be."
Clinton, the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit the country since Tuesday's 7.0-magnitude quake, sought to assure the Haitian people that the United States is working with the government "to assist in every way we can." "We are here at the invitation of your government to help you," she said. "As President Obama has said, we will be here today, tomorrow and for the time ahead."
Clinton, the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit the country since Tuesday's 7.0-magnitude quake, sought to assure the Haitian people that the United States is working with the government "to assist in every way we can."
"We are here at the invitation of your government to help you," she said. "As President Obama has said, we will be here today, tomorrow and for the time ahead."
But for the estimated 300,000 newly homeless in the streets, plazas and parks of Port-au-Prince, help was far from assured.
"They're already starting to deliver food and water, but it's mayhem. People are hungry, everybody is asking for water," said Alain Denis, a resident of the Thomassin district.
Denis's home was intact, and he and his elderly parents have some reserves, but, he said, "in a week, I don't know."
Aid delivery was still bogged down by congestion at the Port-au-Prince airport, quake damage at the seaport, poor roads and the fear of looters and robbers.
The problems at the overloaded airport forced a big Red Cross aid mission to strike out overland from Santo Domingo, almost 200 miles away in the Dominican Republic. The convoy included up to 10 trucks carrying temporary shelters, a 50-bed field hospital and some 60 medical specialists.
"It's not possible to fly anything into Port-au-Prince right now. The airport is completely congested," Red Cross spokesman Paul Conneally said from the Dominican capital.
Another convoy from the Dominican Republic steered toward a U.N. base in Port-au-Prince without stopping, its leaders fearful of sparking a riot if they handed out aid themselves.
The airport congestion touched off diplomatic rows between the U.S. military and other donor nations.
France and Brazil both lodged official complaints that the U.S. military, in control of the international airport, had denied landing permission to relief flights from their countries.
Defense Minister Nelson Jobim, who has 7,000 Brazilian U.N. peacekeeping troops in Haiti, warned against viewing the rescue effort as a unilateral American mission.
The squabbling prompted Haitian President Rene Preval, speaking with the AP, to urge all to "keep our cool and coordinate and not throw accusations."
At a simpler level, unending logistical difficulties dogged the relief effort.
A commercial-sized jet landed with rescue and medical teams from Qatar, only to find problems offloading food aid. They asked the U.S. military for help, surgeon Dr. Mootaz Aly said, and were told: "We're busy."
As relief teams grappled with on-the-ground obstacles, the U.S. leadership promised to step up aid efforts. In Washington, President Barack Obama joined with predecessors George W. Bush and Bill Clinton to appeal for Americans to donate to the cause.
"We stand united with the people of Haiti, who have shown such incredible resilience," he said.
Their resilience was truly being tested, however.
On a back street in Port-au-Prince, a half-dozen young men ripped water pipes off walls to suck out the few drops inside. "This is very, very bad, but I am too thirsty," said Pierre Louis Delmar.
Outside a warehouse, hundreds of desperate Haitians simply dropped to their knees when workers for the agency Food for the Poor announced they would distribute rice, beans and other supplies. "They started praying right then and there," said project director Clement Belizaire.
Children and the elderly were asked to step first into line, and some 1,500 people got food, soap and rubber sandals until supplies ran out, he said.
The aid official was overcome by the tragic scene. "This was the darkest day of everybody living in Port-au-Prince," he said.