By Elisabeth Malkin, Marina Franco and Albinson Linares
MEXICO CITY – Mexicans, fighting fatigue and ebbing hope, hurried Wednesday to dig out survivors still trapped in dozens of collapsed buildings a day after a powerful earthquake rattled the capital and killed at least 230 people, including 30 schoolchildren.
Thousands of government and rescue workers were mobilized, plunging into the shattered shells of residences and offices across the city as legions of residents helped clear debris.
The harried activity at disaster sites stood in sharp contrast to the rest of the city, where an eerie quiet prevailed, with schools closed, businesses largely shuttered and the normally clogged rush-hour streets mostly empty.
But outside the crumpled buildings, the urgency was palpable as rescue workers clawed at rubble to remove it piece by piece and volunteers passed buckets of debris along long lines to waiting dump trucks.
As time passed, rescues became increasingly rare. On Wednesday morning, Sergio Ivan Ruiz was pulled from the ruins of an apartment building in the Condesa neighborhood after being buried for more than 22 hours. As he was carried on a stretcher down the hillock of debris, rescuers and spectators broke into cheers and applause.
The appearance of Ruiz fueled the hope of relatives and rescuers working at the site. “We are removing debris, taking food to the collection center and helping in any way we can because this is our city and nothing will take it away from us,” said Israel Rodriguez, 32, a volunteer rescuer.
Moments later, another member of the rescue operation descended from the towering mound of rubble. He was a lieutenant in the military, and his uniform was stained from the work. With tears in his eyes, he recounted how rescuers had heard Ruiz’s screams from within the wreckage throughout the night.
There had been several other people trapped near Ruiz, but all had died. “We could only get Sergio,” explained the officer, who identified himself only by his last name, Alejandre, because he was not authorized to speak on the record.
At this and other demolished buildings, a sense of impotence accompanied the anguish of relatives who stood along the periphery, praying that their loved ones would emerge alive.
“My brother is still in there,” said Cintia Escamilla, 34, as she sat in front of a collapsed office building in the Roma neighborhood, where others had also gathered to wait for news. “Nobody has told us anything yet.”
Civil protection officials at the scene said that at least 25 people had been rescued from the destroyed building and five bodies had been recovered. But they estimated that 25 more people were still inside.
“I have been waiting since yesterday to hear of my aunt and two employees,” said Jonathan Duran, 38, who worked in the building. “To hear anything, whatever it is, because the wait is killing me.”
All told, Mexico City officials counted 39 buildings destroyed, and the city’s entire staff of emergency workers – about 50,000 people – was on duty along with other city workers who were supporting them, said Mayor Miguel Angel Mancera of Mexico City.
“In all the rest of the buildings, absolutely all of them, we are following a search and rescue protocol,” Mancera said. “We are starting from the assumption that we can find people who are alive. The rescue will continue like this, practically by hand, and we won’t use heavy machinery until we are 100 percent sure.”
The city government reported Wednesday that more than 50 people had been rescued from buildings across the city.
But by late Wednesday the death toll had risen to 230, according to Luis Felipe Puente, the federal director of civil protection. The toll was highest in Mexico City, with 100 dead. The state of Morelos, to the south, counted 71 dead. In Puebla state to the east, 43 people died, including eight in the small town of Atzala, where a church collapsed.
The 7.1-magnitude earthquake struck Tuesday afternoon, 32 years to the day after the city’s last great earthquake, in 1985. That quake killed as many as 10,000 people and was a political watershed for the country, as citizens took over the rescue efforts after the government was quickly overwhelmed.
The event proved the power of civil action in the face of a sclerotic authoritarian government and forced changes to building codes that are believed to have prevented many structures from collapse this time.
The memory of that day seems to have been woven into the DNA of Mexicans, even those who did not live through that tragedy.
At one site, Santiago Borden, 10, was straining to help, carrying a heavy jug of water over his shoulder. Eventually he gave up and passed the burden to his father.
“You’re a kid so you can’t expect to do everything,” his father, Abraham Borden, a lawyer and local politician, said to comfort him.
“I want to show solidarity,” Santiago said.
His father replied: “Of course you do. You’re Mexican, after all.”
The work has been nonstop. Overnight, whirring generators powered floodlights to illuminate the disaster scenes. And almost always, accompanying the rescue workers were volunteers clearing debris and distributing water, surgical masks and mustard-colored work gloves.
The scene at a collapsed building on Laredo Street took a grim turn shortly after dawn, as two bodies were unearthed from the wreckage. Still, work continued.
“We will continue to work to try and rescue everybody who lives in the building,” said Karen Pina, a doctor in charge of distributing medicine for the area.
Five people had been rescued, but there was still no word of Gabriela Jaen Pimienta, 43. Her uncle, Miguel Angel Pimienta, had fainted with exhaustion as he waited for news on Wednesday morning.
His face covered by a surgical mask against the dust raised by the debris, he wept as he acknowledged the grim truth behind the wait.
“With every hour that passes, there is less possibility,” he said.
The work was taking its toll on rescue workers, pushing many to the brink. As dawn broke over two collapsed residential buildings in the middle-class neighborhood of Del Valle, workers paused to rest as they waited for replacements. They believed 40 people were still trapped inside.
“There’s a breaking point, and we’re of no help like this,” said one government rescue worker with tears in his eyes. He asked not to be named because he was not authorized to speak publicly.
“I’ve been doing this 20 years, but it’s difficult to find people who almost made it out but didn’t,” he added. “There was a mother and daughter in a door frame and they were so close.”
But even where the daily routine returned, as dog walkers emerged in the early light and cafes opened to people scanning the news and messages on their phones, the unfolding tragedy, sometimes just blocks away, was evident.
Ambulance sirens interrupted the silence, and police trucks rumbled by. Volunteers carrying shovels headed to the rescue sites ready to take over from those who had been working all night.
Social media ricocheted with messages: photos of missing people, appeals for aid.
“Poor neighborhoods in Xochimilco and Iztapalapa without much help,” wrote Ricardo Becerra, an economist, on Twitter, referring to areas in the city’s south and east. “Come with picks and shovels.”
Over and over, variations on the list of supplies were repeated. Hammer drills, work gloves, helmets, electrolytes, IV fluid, adrenaline, insulin.
And through it all, there were notes of hope: “Found,” read one message on Twitter. “Leonardo Farias from the Enrique Rebsamen school,” the school where the 30 children died.
But the anguish was never far away. Leonardo, pictured in a happier time wearing his knapsack and waving, was in the hospital. “He is in delicate condition,” the message said.