Death toll from Mexico quake rises as rescue workers promise to continue search for survivors

While hundreds have died, the city government said 60 people had been pulled from debris since Tuesday

PUBLISHED : Friday, 22 September, 2017, 9:24pm
UPDATED : Friday, 22 September, 2017, 10:48pm

Survivors were still being pulled from rubble in Mexico City on Friday as rescue operations stretched into the fourth day, spurring hope among desperate relatives gathered at the sites of buildings collapsed by a magnitude 7.1 earthquake.

Mexico’s federal police said several people were lifted out of the debris of two buildings on Thursday. Rescuers removed or broke through slabs until they found cracks that allowed workers to wiggle through to reach the victims, then lift them to safety. The city government said a total of 60 people had been rescued since the quake hit at midday on Tuesday.

‘No one can imagine the pain’: buildings crumble as magnitude 7.1 earthquake hits Mexico, killing at least 217

Still, with the hours passing, fewer of the living were being found, as the official death toll rose to 273 across Mexico City and several nearby states.

The time was nearing when rescuers would have to be replaced by bulldozers to clear rubble, but officials went to great pains to say it was still a rescue operation.

Federal civil defence director Luis Felipe Puente said excavators and bulldozers were starting to clear wrecked buildings where no one had been detected, or where piles of rubble threatened to collapse on neighbouring structures.

“It is false that we are demolishing structures where there could be survivors,” Puente said. “The rescue operations will continue, and they won’t stop.”

Mexico shocked: ‘Frida Sofia’, girl trapped in quake rubble whose plight transfixed nation, never existed

Those who witnessed the buildings collapse said the tragedy could have been much worse. Some buildings did not fall immediately, giving people time to escape, while others crumbled but left spaces where people were able to survive.

In some cases, survival seemed almost miraculous.

Security guard Felix Giral Barron said after the quake started, he had time to run and tell people to evacuate his building. Then an entire block of flats across the street fell and a large gas tank slid off, but did not explode.

“The 550 pound [250kg] gas tank got caught by the trees on the street, and that prevented it from exploding,” he said.

But the tragedy of the quake was front of mind for many.

Since early on Wednesday, the nation’s attention had been glued to the search for a young girl trapped in the rubble of a school in southern Mexico City. Rescuers had said the girl, identified only as Frida Sofia, had signalled she was alive deep in the rubble by wiggling her fingers. Rescuers said they even spoke with her.

The child became a symbol of hope, but no family members came forward to identify her, and officials said no girl by that name was registered at the school.

On Thursday afternoon, navy Assistant Secretary Enrique Sarmiento announced that while there were traces of blood and other signs suggesting someone could be alive beneath the school, all the children had been accounted for.

At Mexico City school flattened by earthquake, a desperate search for dozens of missing children

“We have done an accounting with school officials and we are certain that all the children either died, unfortunately, are in hospitals or are safe at their homes,” he said.

Sarmiento said 11 children had been rescued and 19 had died, along with six adults, including a school employee whose body was recovered just before dawn on Thursday.

“We want to emphasise that we have no knowledge about the report that emerged with the name of a girl,” Sarmiento added. “We do not believe – we are sure – it was not a reality.”

In fact, he said, the only trace rescuers had were images from a camera lowered into the rubble that showed blood tracks where an injured person had apparently dragged himself or herself.

Sarmiento said the only person still listed as missing was a school employee. But it was just blood tracks – no fingers wiggling, no voice, no name. Several dead people have been removed from the rubble, and it could have been their fingers that rescuers thought they saw move.

Sarmiento later apologised for being so categorical.

“The information existing at this moment doesn’t allow us to say if it is an adult or a child,” he said. “As long as there is the slightest possibility of someone alive, we will continue search with the same energy.”

Alfredo Padilla, a volunteer rescuer at the school, played down the importance of the revelation that there was no trapped child.

“It was a confusion,” he said. “The important thing is there are signs of life and we are working on that.”

Meanwhile, outside a collapsed office building in the trendy Roma Norte district, a list of those rescued was strung between two trees. Relatives of the missing compared it against lists of people who were in the building when the quake struck – more than two dozen names.

Maria del Carmen Fernandez’s 27-year-old nephew, Ivan Colin Fernandez, worked as an accountant in the seven-storey building, which fell to the ground and took part of the neighbouring structure with it.

She said the last time the family got an update was late on Wednesday, when officials said about 14 people were believed to be alive inside. Three people have been rescued from the building since the disaster.

“They should keep us informed, because I think what kills us most is the desperation of not knowing anything,” Fernandez said.

Referring to rumours that authorities intended to bring in heavy machinery that could risk bringing buildings down on anyone still alive inside, Fernandez said: “That seems unjust to us because there are still people alive inside and that’s not OK.”

“I think they should wait until they take the last one out,” she said.