Anxiety mounted in Mexico yesterday as rescue efforts passed the crucial 72-hour mark following the devastating earthquake that killed nearly 300 people, with exhausted rescuers racing to reach possible survivors trapped in the rubble before it is too late.
Anguished families watching and waiting at buildings that collapsed with their loved ones inside pleaded with authorities not to send in the bulldozers while there is still hope people could be alive inside – something the government vowed not to do.
“We know she’s alive and we’re not leaving until she leaves with us,” said Olinca González, 29, whose father’s wife worked in a Mexico City building that was flattened in Tuesday’s 7.1-magnitude quake. Families were already circulating fliers reading, “No heavy machinery.”
President Enrique Peña Nieto promised authorities were not giving up the search.
Experts say the average survival time in such disasters is 72 hours, depending on injuries. But trapped survivors have been known to hang on for many days more, including after a massive earthquake that devastated Mexico City in 1985, killing more than 10,000 people. The 72-hour period passed yesterday afternoon.
“The rescue and support effort in the buildings that collapsed is still on,” Peña Nieto said during a visit to the state of Puebla, where the epicentre was. “We are not suspending it. We have to keep up the rescue effort to keep finding survivors in the rubble.”
Authorities put the death toll from Tuesday’s quake at 286 people, but it was expected to rise further with scores still missing in Mexico City, where at least 115 have been confirmed as dead.
Volunteer rescuers working through their third straight night fought off growing fatigue to remove tons of rubble at dozens of flattened buildings in the capital and across several central states.
In the capital’s central neighbourhood of Roma, rescue workers scrambled to locate 23 people believed to be in the wreckage of a collapsed sevenstory office building. They have already pulled 28 survivors from the mountain of rubble.
At other locations, hope turned to grief.
“At 1pm they pulled my mother’s body out of the debris, but identified her under a different name, and it wasn’t until 5pm that they gave us the bad news,” said María Dolores Martínez, 38, at a Mexico City morgue.
Highlighting the confusion on the ground, one story that gripped the world’s attention turned out to be false: that of a girl supposedly trapped alive beneath the rubble of a school that collapsed in Mexico City.
Authorities denied Thursday that the girl existed.
“We have carried out a full count with the directors of the school and we are sure that all the children are either safe at home, in the hospital or unfortunately died” Ángel Sarmiento, a top officer in the Mexican marines, told journalists at the ruins of the Enrique Rebsamen school on the capital’s south side.
“There are indications there may be an (adult) still alive in the rubble. There are traces of blood... as if the person had dragged him or herself and may still be alive.”
The story had made headlines around the world, injecting a ray of hope into a tragedy that killed 19 children and six adults at the school. Relatives and neighbours laid white wreaths near the flattened school Thursday in memory of the dead, hugging each other in tears.
“Sad, painful. In these moments, you can’t put into words what you’re feeling after the loss of a loved one,” said Miguel Ángel Ortiz, whose niece was killed.
Nonetheless, real stories of hope continued to emerge from the ruins.
In the north of the city, a man who had been trapped for 26 hours and a 90-year-old woman were pulled alive from the rubble.
As rescuers race against the clock to find survivors, others wondered where they will live after the quake damaged an estimated 20,000 homes.
“I’m waiting for the civil protection service to tell me if we can go home or not,” said street vendor Erika Albarran, who has been staying with her family in a shelter.
Her family has only 100 pesos (US$5.50) among them and she doesn’t know how they will manage once assistance such as food, shelter and baby supplies runs out.
“We don’t have cash. We’re living day to day,” she said.