Earthquake death toll climbs to 225 in Mexico as frantic search continues for survivors

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MEXICO CITY — Rescuers searched massive piles of rubble for any signs of life Wednesday morning after dozens of buildings collapsed across central Mexico in Tuesday’s violent earthquake, which killed at least 225 people, injured at least 1,000 and caused chaos in Mexico’s capital.

Firefighters, soldiers and volunteers worked through the night clearing debris and scrambling to find survivors, at times working with bare hands and donated flashlights. There were a few moments of relief when several still-breathing, dust-covered survivors were pulled from the wreckage and transported to hospitals. But many others were found dead.

At least 20 children and two adults died when a three-story school collapsed on the south side of the city. At least two children had been rescued, but up to 30 others and eight adults were still missing, said Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto. He spoke late Tuesday outside Enrique Rebsamen school, surrounded by desperate parents waiting for word on their children.

Pedro Serrano, a volunteer rescue worker, said rescuers could hear sounds from inside the school but didn’t know whether they were coming from people crying for help or were the sounds of the building crumbling.

“We can hear small noises, but we don’t know,” Serrano, a medical doctor, told the Associated Press. He managed to crawl into the crevices of the teetering pile of rubble Tuesday. He made it into a classroom, he said, but found all of its occupants dead.

“We saw some chairs and wooden tables,” he said. “The next thing we saw was a leg, and then we started to move rubble, and we found a girl and two adults — a woman and a man.”

Five people were killed at the Mexico City campus of Monterrey Institute of Technology and Higher Education, the school said in a statement. Scores more died in collapsed apartment buildings and office towers.

Amid the chaos of an all-night rescue operation at one collapsed office building — as ambulances circled with sirens blaring and firefighters desperately searched the rubble for survivors — a group of several dozen people pressed against police tape, watching in anxious silence.

They were the mothers, sisters, cousins, husbands and wives of people trapped inside the wreckage of the multistory building, located in the upscale neighborhood of Condesa, in the center of Mexico City.

Conception Chavez Lopez, 51, had been waiting outside for seven hours.

She had seen more than a dozen people pulled alive from the wreckage. None had been her son, Gustavo Banda Chavez, 23, or her brother, Miguel Angel Chavez Lopez, 48, who worked together in an accounting firm on the building’s fourth floor.

Chavez could barely utter her own name when someone asked it shortly before midnight Tuesday. She and a small group of relatives kept their eyes desperately trained on the scene in front of them: firefighters picking their way across a towering heap of bricks, chunks of concrete and twisted metal, their work illuminated by floodlights.

The 225 people died across five states as well as the autonomous district of Mexico City, authorities said. At least 94 died in Mexico City, 43 in Puebla, 71 in Morelos, 12 in Mexico State, 4 in Guerrero and 1 in Oaxaca, they said. Eight hundred people were injured in Mexico City alone.

With multiple areas without power and glass and debris strewn across the city, many residents will need help in the coming days, Pena Nieto said in a video statement. But he said the initial focus must be on finding people trapped in destroyed buildings.

“The priority at this moment is to keep rescuing people who are still trapped and to give medical attention to the injured people,” he said. Across the region, authorities begged for donations of food and water to help nourish rescuers and for flashlights to help light the searches that likely would go into Wednesday night.

All Alejandro Santiago hoped, as he stood watching the office building in Condesa late Tuesday, was that somebody would say the name of his 28-year-old cousin: Paulina Gomez. That’s all he wanted to hear.

It would mean that somebody had found Gomez, a human resources administrator who worked on the fourth floor, somewhere down there beneath the rubble. It would mean her name could join the list of people who had been rescued that authorities were writing on a piece of poster board attached to a light post. But Santiago, 28, had been there two hours and hadn’t heard anything. So he waited, and watched.

At one point, police had asked the family members to move farther from the scene. They refused.

“We’re not moving until we find out what happened to them,” he said.

Tuesday’s earthquake jolted the capital city on the anniversary of a deadly 1985 temblor in the region.

Gabriela Jaen Pimienta, 42, lived with her husband and daughter on the fifth floor of a six-story apartment building in the Condesa neighborhood that crumbled during the quake.

The husband and daughter, who weren’t home, survived the disaster. But Miguel Angel Pimienta Avalos, 63, said his niece was working from home Tuesday morning. Avalos arrived at the scene at 10 p.m. Tuesday to ask about his niece. When the quake hit, he had called every family member to make sure each was safe. She was the only person who didn’t answer.

“When I saw the photos on the internet, I said, ‘It’s not likely that they’ll get people out,’” he said, looking away as he fought back tears. “Hopefully there is a miracle.”

Just across from the apartments, medics had turned a building for representatives from the state of Durango into a makeshift base for family members of those missing. Members of thirteen families had signed in throughout the night. None of their loved ones had been found by morning, and most of the families left by daybreak. Ten hours after he arrived, Avalos was the only person left, volunteering to pass the time, and praying to God.

Emergency crews worked through the night. Nurses set up a sidewalk clinic, while others walked around offering pastries and water. Dozens of people stood watch, their mouths covered with face masks, as volunteers atop a mountain of rubble passed debris down in buckets. Others carted rubble away from the ground in wheelbarrows. One rescue worker brought a yellow Labrador retriever to the top of the pile to sniff out bodies. Suddenly, workers dimmed the lights, cut off the generators and called for silence. They listened. A few minutes later, they resumed their work.

Around 7 a.m., workers from the Civil Protection National System taped off the area closest to the downed building. As he wrapped police tape around a lamppost, one man said they thought they might be close to finding a survivor. An hour later, though, no one had been led out.

Dr. Karen Pina Fragoso said a handful of people had survived the collapse. Two walked out on their own Tuesday night, and three or four were rushed to a hospital. She didn’t know how many adults remained missing in the building, but she said at least three children were unaccounted for.

Fragoso said medics could still hear the voices of many survivors trapped in the building at 3 a.m. But as daylight broke, the voices quieted.

The U.S. Geological Survey calculated the magnitude of Tuesday’s temblor at 7.1 and said the epicenter was about 80 miles southeast of Mexico City in the state of Puebla.

The quake struck 32 years to the day after another powerful earthquake that killed thousands and devastated large parts of Mexico City — a tragedy that Pena Nieto had commemorated earlier Tuesday.

Mexico sits in one of the world’s most seismically active areas, as the floor of the Pacific Ocean south of the country is sliding underneath the North American plate. Mexico City is prone to major damage in earthquakes because it was built on an old lakebed, which amplifies the shaking.

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