1. Mexico earthquake: 248 killed in deadliest tragedy to strike capital city since 1985

Mexico earthquake: 248 killed in deadliest tragedy to strike capital city since 1985

At least 248 people were killed when a powerful 7.1-magnitude earthquake struck Mexico, including 21 children crushed beneath an elementary school that was reduced to rubble.

By: | Mexico City | Updated: September 20, 2017 1:20 PM
mexico, mexico earthquake, mexico quake, mexico crisis, mexico incident, world news People clear rubble after an earthquake hit Mexico City. (Reuters)

At least 248 people were killed when a powerful 7.1-magnitude earthquake struck Mexico, including 21 children crushed beneath an elementary school that was reduced to rubble. The destruction revived horrific memories in Mexico on the anniversary of another massive quake in 1985, the disaster-prone country’s deadliest ever. One of the most gut-wrenching scenes was at the Enrique Rebsamen primary school on Mexico City’s south side, whose three floors collapsed into one, trapping students and teachers inside. Twenty-one children and five adults were killed, said Major Jose Luis Vergara of the Mexican navy yesterday, who was coordinating a rescue effort that involved hundreds of soldiers, police, civilian volunteers and rescue dogs.

He said another 30 to 40 people remained trapped inside, while 11 children have been rescued so far. Emergency workers found a teacher and a student alive beneath the rubble and are trying to get them out, he said. But the situation was precarious. Late into the night, part of the wreckage collapsed as rescuers continued their search. Local media reports said soldiers had administered oxygen to one trapped child through a tube. President Enrique Pena Nieto, who rushed to the site, warned the death toll could rise. “Unfortunately, many people have lost their lives, including children, in schools, buildings and homes,” he said in a national address. The devastation struck across a swath of central states and the death toll as of early today was 248, the head of the national disaster response agency, Luis Felipe Puente, said on Twitter.

In addition to Mexico City, people were also killed in Puebla, Morelos, Mexico state and Guerrero, said Interior Minister Miguel Osorio Chong. Well after nightfall, rescue crews and volunteers in Mexico City — home to 20 million people — were still clawing through the rubble of dozens of collapsed buildings looking for survivors and bodies. Local media reported that families were getting WhatsApp messages pleading for help from desperate relatives trapped under debris. Memories of the devastating 1985 earthquake, which killed at least 10,000 people, surged to the surface on what was meant to be a low-key 32nd anniversary.

Adding to the national sense of vulnerability, the quake also came just 12 days after another temblor that killed nearly 100 people and left more than 200 injured, mainly in the southern states of Oaxaca and Chiapas. Many in the capital ran outdoors when walls around them swayed and cracked. “I’m so worried. I can’t stop crying. It’s the same nightmare as in 1985,” Georgina Sanchez, 52, sobbed to AFP in a plaza in the capital. The quake — which occurred in the early afternoon, hours after city authorities had conducted an earthquake drill — caused massive damage in the bustling center of the city. “It was horrible,” said resident Leiza Visaj Herrera, 27. “I had to hold on to the ground.”

Scenes of chaos erupted in the quake’s aftermath. Traffic jammed to a standstill before blanked-out stop lights, and anxious people ran between vehicles as ambulances tried to make headway, sirens blaring. In several locations, large crowds of people clambered on buildings that were now piles of stone and tangled metal, trying to pull people out. Emergency workers held up signs commanding “Silence” so crews could listen for the sounds of any survivors. Jorge Lopez, a 49-year-old Spaniard living in Mexico City, said he raced to his children’s school in the central Roma district, to find it collapsed but his offspring safe but terrified. “We arrived at the school and everyone was crying, everyone was frantic, and the kids were holding on to a rope,” he said.

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Patients were evacuated from a nearby hospital, wheeled out on beds and wheelchairs. Pena Neto said on Twitter he had ordered the evacuation of damaged hospitals. At one collapsed building in the Roma district, dozens of people dug through rubble as they waited for the arrival of heavy machinery to move the massive chunks of stone. Officials called out for more volunteers, and for water. A woman standing and watching the efforts with her husband, a doctor, turned to him and said, “Darling, if you want to help, go ahead. Just give me your glasses, and be careful.” Mexico City’s international airport closed for more than three hours following the quake. The stock market was forced to shut.

Fearful residents whose homes were damaged were preparing to spend the night on the street or in parks. On the clogged and darkened roads, muggers came out at night to assault motorists. Officials in several other countries responded to the quake with offers of help. Honduras sent a 36-strong rescue team. US President Donald Trump, who has forged an antagonistic relationship with Mexico, tweeted: “God bless the people of Mexico City. We are with you and will be there for you.” Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tweeted: “Devastating news from Mexico City. My thoughts are with those affected by today’s earthquake — Canada will be ready to help our friends.”

Thousands fled into the streets in panic, and many stayed to help rescue those trapped. Dozens of buildings tumbled into mounds of rubble or were severely damaged in densely populated parts of Mexico City and nearby states yesterday. Mayor Miguel Angel Mancera said buildings fell at 44 places in the capital alone as high-rises across the city swayed sickeningly. Hours after the magnitude 7.1 quake, rescue workers were still clawing through the wreckage of a primary school that partly collapsed in the city’s south looking for any children who might be trapped. Some relatives said they had received Whatsapp message from two girls inside.

The quake is the deadliest in Mexico since a 1985 quake on the same date killed thousands. It came less than two weeks after another powerful quake caused 90 deaths in the country’s south. Luis Felipe Puente, head of the national Civil Defense agency, reported last night that the confirmed death toll had been raised to 149. His tweet said 55 people died in Morelos state, just south of Mexico City, while 49 died in the capital and 32 were killed in nearby Puebla state, where the quake was centered.

Ten people died in the State of Mexico, which surrounds Mexico City on three sides, and three were killed in Guerrero state, he said. The count did not include one death that officials in the southern state of Oaxaca reported earlier as quake-related. The federal government declared a state of disaster in Mexico City, freeing up emergency funds. President Enrique Pena Nieto said he had ordered all hospitals to open their doors to the injured. Mancera, the Mexico City mayor, said 50 to 60 people were rescued alive by citizens and emergency workers in the capital. Authorities said at least 70 people in the capital had been hospitalized for injuries.

The federal interior minister, Miguel Angel Osorio Chong, said authorities had reports of people possibly still being trapped in collapsed buildings. He said search efforts were slow because of the fragility of rubble. “It has to be done very carefully,” he said. And “time is against us.” At one site, reporters saw onlookers cheer as a woman was pulled from the rubble. Rescuers immediately called for silence so they could listen for others who might be trapped. Mariana Morales, a 26-year-old nutritionist, was one of many who spontaneously participated in rescue efforts. She wore a paper face mask and her hands were still dusty from having joined a rescue brigade to clear rubble from a building that fell in a cloud of dust before her eyes, about 15 minutes after the quake.

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Morales said she was in a taxi when the quake struck, and she got out and sat on a sidewalk to try to recover from the scare. Then, just a few yards away, the three-story building fell. A dust-covered Carlos Mendoza, 30, said that he and other volunteers had been able to pull two people alive from the ruins of a collapsed apartment building after three hours of effort. “We saw this and came to help,” he said. “It’s ugly, very ugly.” Alma Gonzalez was in her fourth floor apartment in the Roma neighborhood when the quake pancaked the ground floor of her building, leaving her no way out, until neighbors set up a ladder on their roof and helped her slide out a side window.

Gala Dluzhynska was taking a class with 11 other women on the second floor of a building on trendy Alvaro Obregon street when the quake struck and window and ceiling panels fell as the building began to tear apart. She said she fell in the stairs and people began to walk over her, before someone finally pulled her up. “There were no stairs anymore. There were rocks,” she said. They reached the bottom only to find it barred. A security guard finally came and unlocked it. The quake sent people throughout the city fleeing from homes and offices, and many people remained in the streets for hours, fearful of returning to the structures.

Alarms blared and traffic stopped around the Angel of Independence monument on the iconic Reforma Avenue. Electricity and cellphone service was interrupted in many areas and traffic was snarled as signal lights went dark. The US Geological Survey said the magnitude 7.1 quake hit at 1:14 PM and was centered near the Puebla state town of Raboso, about 123 kilometers southeast of Mexico City. Puebla Gov Tony Gali tweeted there were damaged buildings in the city of Cholula, including collapsed church steeples. In Jojutla, a town in neighboring Morelos state, the town hall, a church and other buildings tumbled down, and 12 people were reported killed.

The Instituto Morelos secondary school partly collapsed in Jojutla, but school director Adelina Anzures said the earthquake drill that the school held in the morning was a boon when the real thing hit just two hours later. “I told them that it was not a game, that we should be prepared,” Anzures said of the drill. When the shaking began, children and teachers filed out rapidly and no one was hurt, she said. “It fell and everything inside was damaged.” Earlier in the day, workplaces across Mexico City held earthquake readiness drills on the anniversary of the 1985 quake, a magnitude 8.0 shake that killed thousands of people and devastated large parts of the capital. In that tragedy, too, ordinary citizens played a crucial role in rescue efforts that overwhelmed officials.

Market stall vendor Edith Lopez, 25, said she was in a taxi a few blocks away when the quake struck yesterday. She said she saw glass bursting out of the windows of some buildings. She was anxiously trying to locate her children, whom she had left in the care of her disabled mother. Local media broadcast video of whitecap waves churning the city’s normally placid canals of Xochimilco as boats bobbed up and down. Mexico City’s international airport suspended operations and was checking facilities for damage. Much of Mexico City is built on former lakebed, and the soil can amplify the effects of earthquakes centered hundreds of miles away.

The new quake appeared to be unrelated to the magnitude 8.1 temblor that hit September 7 off Mexico’s southern coast and also was felt strongly in the capital. US Geological Survey seismologist Paul Earle noted the epicenters of the two quakes were 650 kilometers apart and said most aftershocks are within 100 kilometers. There have been 19 earthquakes of magnitude 6.5 or larger within 250 kilometers of yesterday’s quake over the past century, Earle said. Earth usually has about 15 to 20 earthquakes this size or larger each year, Earle said. Initial calculations showed that more than 30 million people would have felt moderate shaking from yesterday’s quake.

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