JIM LEHRER: The island nation of Haiti lay stricken today, 24 hours after a disastrous earthquake. Hundreds of buildings were destroyed, and the Haitian president said 30,000 to 50,000 people could be dead. Other estimates ranged as high as 500,000.
U.S. officials were checking reports of three Americans killed out of 45,000 living in Haiti. Judy
Woodruff begins our coverage.
JUDY WOODRUFF: The light of morning brought the catastrophe in the Caribbean clearly into view. Huge swathes of Port-au-Prince had been reduced to ruins, and thousands of people gathered on the streets seeking shelter.
They were left dazed by the region's most powerful earthquake in more than 200 years. It struck about an hour before nightfall on Tuesday, just 10 miles west of the Haitian capital, home to two million people.
WOMAN: The world is coming to an end.
JUDY WOODRUFF: This amateur cell phone video posted on YouTube showed a huge cloud of dust rising from the city. Homes, hospitals, schools and office buildings simply collapsed, trapping unknown thousands.
Survivors poured outside, hoping to escape. Some tried to pull others out to safety. Australian aid worker Ian Rodgers of Save the Children was in Port-au-Prince, and reported scenes of chaos.
IAN RODGERS: The infrastructure is all down at the moment. There is no power. It's very, very dark.
Earlier in the evening, before it got too dark, you were hearing a lot of people obviously breathing and a lot of distress going on, looking for their missing relatives. We are really quite concerned about several of the children and -- and families at the moment and what's going to happen.
JUDY WOODRUFF: The ornate presidential palace, seen here in a photo before the quake, crumbled into itself, but the president and first lady were not injured.
Dozens of other government buildings, including the parliament, also caved in. The main prison in Port-au-Prince was in ruins, and inmates escaped.
Throughout last night, makeshift camps and hospitals were set up, and the bodies of the dead were piled on the streets. But more than 30 aftershocks rocked the area, hindering rescue efforts. Some 9,000 United Nations peacekeepers are serving in Haiti. At least 14 were killed and many were injured when their headquarters collapsed. The mission chief and more than 150 others were missing.
The headquarters of the International Red Cross was also destroyed. The organization said one-third of Haiti's nine million people may need emergency aid.
The quake also claimed the life of the archbishop of Port-au-Prince. This is a majority Catholic country, and Pope Benedict XVI spoke at the Vatican.
POPE BENEDICT XVI: I assure my spiritual closeness to those who have lost their homes and to all the people who are suffering in various ways for this calamity, imploring from God consolation and relief for their sufferings.
JUDY WOODRUFF: The earthquake was a devastating blow to Haiti, the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere. The country is still recovering from a series of hurricanes and tropical storms in 2008 that killed more than 800 people.
In Washington today, President Obama pledged the United States' unwavering support.
U.S. PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: With just a few hundred miles of ocean between us and a long history that binds us together, Haitians are our neighbors in the Americas and here at home. Our thoughts and prayers are also with the many Haitian-Americans around our country who do not yet know the fate of their families and loved ones back home.
JUDY WOODRUFF: From Miami to New York and elsewhere, Haitian- Americans began gathering last night to wait for news.
JACQUES JEAN, Concerned About Family in Haiti: No, I only got a busy, busy sound.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Some tried in vain to reach families all night.
JACQUES JEAN: I have a lot of sisters out there. And I went over there in July to spend time with them. I don't know if I will have a chance to see them again.
JUDY WOODRUFF: In Miami's Little Haiti section this morning, a mass for the earthquake victims was held at the Cathedral of Saint Mary.
The disaster affected all, from everyday people to community leaders, including Phillip Brutus, the first Haitian-American elected to the state legislature in Florida.
PHILLIP BRUTUS, Former Florida State Representative: A lot of people are unaccounted for. My wife is in Haiti. I have a 5-year-old in Haiti. She sent me a text yesterday. The text started. Then I didn't get the end of the text, and I have been trying to text since. Hopefully, they are OK.
JUDY WOODRUFF: In Chicago, Haitian-Americans gathered at a local community center and church to seek comfort.
The Haitian broadcast of the Voice of America went into expanded service, even though its main transmitter in Haiti was destroyed in the quake. Fifty percent of Haitians listen to the VOA.
Ronald Cesar is their service director in Washington.
RONALD CESAR, Creole service chief, Voice of America: The Voice of America's Creole service was able to set up a phone number for Haitians everywhere to call and leave messages for their loved ones, and we would play those messages in our broadcast.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Still, most forms of communication were down in Haiti, leaving many to wait for more news in the coming days.