Mexico quake rescuers search school rubble as death toll hits 225

Desperate rescue workers scrabbled through rubble in a floodlit search on Wednesday for dozens of children feared buried beneath a Mexico City school, one of hundreds of buildings destroyed by the country’s most lethal earthquake in a generation.

The magnitude 7.1 quake killed at least 225 people, nearly half of them in the capital, 32 years to the day of the devastating 1985 quake. Mexico is also still reeling from a powerful tremor that killed nearly 100 people in the south of the country less than two weeks ago.

Among the twisted concrete and steel ruins of the Enrique Rebsamen school, soldiers and firefighters found at least 22 dead children and two adults, while another 30 children and 12 adults are missing, President Enrique Pena Nieto said.

One man helping to pull bodies from the collapsed school told CBC News the situation was “brutal, just brutal.” The part of the school with the most damage housed the Grade 2 students.

People at the school have been digging non-stop and using anything they could to get through the rubble from heavy machinery to shovels, pickaxes and their hands.  

Helicopters are flying overhead to assess the damage, but the noise from the helicopters is so loud that rescuers can’t hear any possible survivors.

Amid the devastation are more hopeful stories too. One woman said her 10-year-old child escaped the school while the stairs were breaking apart. After escaping the crumbling building, the child ran back in to help rescue a friend who was still inside.

“It’s hard to be happy when so many other mothers are grieving today,” the woman told the CBC’s Kim Brunhuber nearby the school. 

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Toys and a baby walker are seen in a building flattened by the strong quake that hit central Mexico. (Alfredo Estrella/AFP/Getty Images)

A young girl was pulled alive from the collapsed school after crews saw her hand move and threading a hose through the debris to get her water. The rescue was broadcast on TV channel Televisa. 

Some parents can only cling to the hope that their children survived.

“They keep pulling kids out, but we know nothing of my daughter,” said Adriana D’Fargo, 32, her eyes red after hours waiting for news of her seven-year-old.

Three survivors were found at around midnight as volunteer rescue teams formed after the 1985 quake and known as “moles” crawled deep under the rubble.

TV network Televisa reported that 15 more bodies, mostly children, had been recovered, while 11 children were rescued. The school is for children three to 14 years old.

The earthquake toppled dozens of buildings, broke gas mains and sparked fires across the city and other towns in central Mexico. Falling rubble and billboards crushed cars.

Canadians in Mexico

There are currently 3,320 Canadians in Mexico. Registration with the federal government is voluntary, however, and that figure “may not reflect the actual number,” said Philip Hannan, spokesperson for Global Affairs Canada. 

“As of Wednesday morning, there have been no reports of Canadian casualties,” he added. 

In a statement issued Tuesday night, Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland said, “The government of Canada is ready to assist Mexico as needed and appropriate.”

She stressed that Canadians requiring consular assistance should contact Global Affairs toll-free at 1-613-996-8885 or by email at sos@international.gc.ca.

‘This is not a drill’

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Rescuers, firefighters, policemen, soldiers and volunteers search for survivors in Mexico City on Wednesday after a strong quake hit central Mexico the day before. (Yuri Cortez/AFP/Getty Images)

Parts of colonial-era churches crumbled in the state of Puebla, where the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) located the quake’s epicentre at a point 158 kilometres southeast of the capital. The hypocentre was 51 kilometres beneath the earth’s surface.

As the earth shook, Mexico’s Popocatepetl volcano, visible from the capital on a clear day, had a small eruption. On its slopes, a church in Atzitzihuacan collapsed during mass, killing 15 people, Puebla Gov. Jose Antonio Gali said.

Residents of Mexico City, a metropolitan region of some 20 million people, slept in the streets while authorities and volunteers set up tented collection centres to distribute food and water.

Volunteers, soldiers and firefighters formed human chains and dug with hammers and picks to find dust-covered survivors and dead bodies in the remains of apartment buildings, schools and a factory.

The middle-class neighbourhood of Del Valle was hit hard, with several buildings toppling over on just one street. Reserve rescue workers arrived late at night and were still pulling survivors out in the small hours of Wednesday.

With power out in much of the city, the work was carried out in the dark or with flashlights and generators. Rescue workers requested silence as they listened for signs of life.

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Rescuers, firefighters, police officers, soldiers and volunteers remove rubble and debris from a flattened building Tuesday in search of survivors after a powerful quake hit Mexico City.

Some soldiers were armed with automatic weapons. Authorities said schools would be shut on Wednesday as damage was assessed.

Emergency personnel and equipment were being deployed across affected areas so that “throughout the night we can continue aiding the population and eventually find people beneath the rubble,” Pena Nieto said in a video posted on Facebook earlier on Tuesday evening.

The quake had killed 86 people in the capital by early Wednesday morning, according to Civil Protection chief Luis Felipe Puente — fewer than he had previously estimated. In Morelos State, just to the south, 71 people were killed, with hundreds of homes destroyed. In Puebla at least 43 died.

Another 17 people were reported killed in the states of Mexico, Guerrero and Oaxaca.

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Rescuers work at the site of a collapsed building following the Mexico City quake. (Henry Romero/Reuters)

As many as 4.6 million homes, businesses and other facilities had lost electricity, according to the national power company, including 40 per cent of homes in Mexico City.

Moises Amador Mejia, 44, an employee of the civil protection agency, was working late into the night to rescue people trapped in a collapsed building in Mexico City’s bohemian Condesa neighbourhood.

“The idea is to stay here until we find who is inside. Day and night.”

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