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Mexican Rescuers Race Time; Toll Climbs to 3,000

Times Staff Writers

Exhausted rescue workers Saturday wielded picks and shovels against the massive devastation of Mexico City, racing time and continuing aftershocks in their search for victims still trapped in the debris of two giant earthquakes.

The Mexican government raised its official death toll to 3,000 late Saturday, and a Mexican newspaper put the number of dead at 4,000. More than 2,000 were known to be trapped in two collapsed hospitals alone. Thousands more remained caught in the wreckage of apartment buildings, offices and schools demolished by the quakes, which struck Thursday morning and then again Friday night.

U.S. Ambassador to Mexico John Gavin, in what he described as a “guess,” estimated that the total fatalities could reach 10,000.

“We are talking surely of 10,000 and maybe more,” he said at a Mexico City news conference after a helicopter tour of the stricken area. “It could be twice that number.”

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“My friend, it is impossible to say at this moment how many lived and how many died,” said Baladier Beltran Correa, head of the temporary morgue at the city’s Cuauhtemoc district headquarters.

At Least 15,000 Hurt

Mexico City police said that at least 15,000 people were injured and were being treated and that another 20,000 are homeless. They also counted 411 collapsed buildings and another 196 so battered by the back-to-back quakes that they will have to be demolished.

36 Hours After First

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The aftershock that rocked Mexico City and four Mexican states late Friday, 36 hours after the first temblor shuddered through the city, registered 7.3 on the Richter scale. According to authorities, initial indications were that it caused no deaths or major injuries, but it toppled previously teetering structures, including at least 20 major buildings, sent windows crashing into the streets, cut gas lines and tore the cross off an old church.

Fear of More Tremors

As cracks in walls and stairwells widened from the aftershock, thousands of residents abandoned their apartment buildings in fear that future tremors would level the structures. In the hardest-hit neighborhoods, people camped in the streets and parks, using blankets, plastic sheets and tin for roofs, and refused to reenter their homes. Some brought their furniture with them.

Psychologically, too, this is a ruined city. The despair intensified as the chances of finding survivors in the rubble began to fade.

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Plaintive notes were pasted on public bulletin boards around the capital. “I’m looking for my children Anuar, Anizul, Daniela and Alondra, missing in the tragedy of the Nuevo Leon building,” one read.

Emergency officials said that 70% of the 2,000 bodies already brought to Mexico City morgues have been identified but that--in order to limit the spread of infectious disease--many may have to be buried before they are identified.

Through the day Saturday, relatives walked through morgues, searching for loved ones.

Common Graves

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“It is traumatic,” said one man leaving a morgue.

Common graves were dug in the city’s 211 cemeteries for the unclaimed dead. Plans were made to fumigate the collapsed buildings where bodies were trapped. The city government assured citizens that the fumigations would wait until it was clear that no survivors remained at each site.

“An unidentified man,” read several others.

Relatives of the missing kept tragic vigils outside crumpled buildings, but many worried that the pace of excavation would not be fast enough to save those loved ones who survived in the ruins.

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Next to the ruined General Hospital near downtown, Marta Gonzalez began her third day of waiting to find her husband, a resident doctor trapped inside.

Slim Chance of Survival

When the second quake hit, Gonzalez, a mother of two, worried that the chances of her husband’s survival were erased.

“All I could think was that the progress on the rescue would be lost,” she said. “I feared he would be crushed.”

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Rescue workers at the site of the hospital, where an entire wing collapsed, have not found anyone alive in the rubble since Friday night.

At least five Americans were listed among the dead. U.S. authorities Saturday identified one as Georgiana Mary Yunes, 30, who was born in San Antonio but lived in Mexico. Late Friday, they announced that Mary Elizabeth Vallejo, 34, and her two children--Ilse Ann Vallejo, 8, and Alonso Vallejo, 5--also perished when they were struck by falling debris. A fifth American was not identified, pending notification of relatives.

Vallejo’s family in Cozad, Neb., said they believe that Mary Vallejo’s husband, a Mexican national, also died.

3 Hospitals Destroyed

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The U.S. State Department said three hospitals, the Hotel Aristo, a facility popular with tourists, and other structures were destroyed in Friday’s quake.

The Cafe Havana, a legendary coffeehouse where Fidel Castro reportedly planned the Cuban revolution, crumbled to the ground Friday, but there were no reported injuries.

The Friday quake toppled the cross from the Tacuba Church and left its tower leaning precariously.

Genie Davis, an American Red Cross worker returning from Mexico City to her home in Wichita Falls, Tex., said a number of people were trapped when Friday’s earthquake smashed a Sears Roebuck department store.

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“I was told that there were people in the store shopping at the time of the quake,” Davis said.

The aftershock, like its predecessor, the 7.8-magnitude quake that struck Thursday morning, was centered on the Mexican coast 200 miles from Mexico City. Additional aftershocks, including one that registered 4.3 on the Richter scale, rolled through the battered city Saturday.

Many Staying Outside

Initial reports said no people were killed in the Friday jolt because so many residents were staying outside, away from precarious buildings.

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The massive aftershock only temporarily disrupted the feverish rescue efforts of thousands of volunteers who fanned out across the capital in search of residents who were buried alive. Mexican authorities said that 600 people have been pulled from the ruins alive since Thursday but that far more have been found dead.

The deaths were not limited to Mexico City. As reports--hampered by faulty telephone lines--came in irregularly from the Mexican countryside, the toll grew.

300 Dead in Colima

In Colima, the city nearest the epicenter, an estimated 300 were dead and hundreds were injured, a television station in Monterrey reported.

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In the state of Michoacan, more than 70 people were reported dead and another 150 injured. Most were in Ciudad Guzman, where a church collapsed and 30% of the houses in town were destroyed or seriously damaged. Thirty-two were killed in the collapse of two resort hotels in Playa Azul, a beach resort.

Offshore, two freighters and 19 fishing boats sailing near the epicenter when the first shock occurred are still missing, but two other freighters that had been feared sunk were reported safe. All the missing fishing boats are Mexican, and one of the freighters still missing is of Liberian registry.

Here in the capital, some painstaking progress was being made to return to normal. Authorities said power was restored by late Saturday to 65% of the capital, but Mayor Ramon Aguirre said the city’s water system may have suffered long-term damage because of broken pipes. There were not enough trucks to deliver water to the millions who needed it. Those who could get water were urged to boil it to insure its safety. Local telephone service was operating, but most international lines were still down.

Relayed by Radio

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With the loss of long-distance phone service, one radio station with a large U.S. audience devoted its air time to sending messages from Mexico City residents to relatives in Texas and other border states.

“I’d like to get this message to Berkeley, California,” said one woman. The sad message: Her daughter’s three young girls, who had been visiting the caller while on vacation, were dead.

Tourism Minister Antonio Enrique-Savignac said in Houston on Saturday that the situation in the capital was “under control” and that subways, buses and trains were running normally.

Mexican President Miguel de la Madrid, meanwhile, appealed to his grieving nation to preserve unity.

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‘Will Bury Our Dead’

“We will bury our dead with sadness, but at the same time we will renew our will to live and to cure our wounds,” he said. “The truth is that in the face of an earthquake of this magnitude, we do not have the resources to confront the tragedy with speed and sufficiency.”

President Reagan offered his condolences to the Mexican people in his weekly radio broadcast Saturday and announced that First Lady Nancy Reagan will arrive in Mexico City on Monday to personally comfort the victims and offer U.S. support.

“We greatly admire the bravery and resolve of the Mexican people to dedicate all their resources to overcome this calamitous event,” the President said.

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On Saturday, officials here swallowed the traditional Mexican government pride and accepted aid from the U.S. government. Two days earlier, De la Madrid had said Mexico could handle the disaster by itself.

Not Requesting or Refusing

“We have not requested any aid, but neither can we refuse to accept it,” said Foreign Minister Bernardo Sepulveda.

A U.S. C-141 transport plane arrived here Saturday with a five-member demolition team and equipment capable of razing buildings on the verge of collapse, a U.S. Embassy spokesman said.

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Ambassador Gavin said 25 more U.S. demolitions experts with tracking dogs and sophisticated equipment were also expected before dawn today.

Three firefighting helicopters were sent from California to the capital to help quell the blazes that have burned since the first quake hit Thursday. Several U.S. Forest Service helicopters, carrying fire equipment to attach to Mexican government aircraft, were expected to arrive late Saturday.

Buildings to Be Leveled

“The plan of attack is to get some of these unsound buildings down with explosives, once they are satisfied that all the bodies are out,” said L.O. Martin, deputy chief of the Houston Emergency Management Center, which was sending civil defense workers and rescue equipment in a caravan to Mexico City.

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In a statement released Saturday, De la Madrid thanked the people of the United States “for the multiple manifestations of sympathy that we have received. I want to thank President Ronald Reagan, who from the very beginning has established contact with us and with whom, because of the communications problems we have, I have not been able to talk to personally.

“It is important that our American friends, and especially the Mexican-American communities, know that although the tragedy is great and although we have many losses of life to regret, most of the capital is still standing,” he added.

Survival Hopes Dim

It was not known how long the search for bodies would take. As the hours passed Saturday, hopes dimmed for the survival of most of those still trapped.

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Amazingly, however, two British students were freed alive after being trapped in the Hotel El Romano for 30 hours. But diplomats said many foreigners were feared dead in the seven hotels that have collapsed.

Emergency officials estimated that 2,200 people lay trapped in the wreckage of two hospitals, the 12-story Juarez Hospital and the national medical center. Some were still alive. Rescue workers inserted rubber hoses into gaps in the ruins, hoping to supply air until heavy machinery arrived to help.

Many Trapped in Hospital

More than 350 patients and 600 employees--including 40 doctors--were trapped in the Juarez hospital alone, officials said. So far, only 32 bodies have been pulled from the outpatient medical clinic. The main section of the facility remained untouched by rescue workers.

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“We estimate--and can only approximate--we have 500, perhaps 700 buried in this one heap,” said Ernesto Pallares, cleanup supervisor at the Juarez Hospital. “It’s been two days, and we are still recovering people--alive.

“We know we have a pocket of at least 10 people alive in this rubble,” he added. “We can talk to them. We cannot get water and food to them.”

Estimates of the number trapped in the medical center were raised from 400 to 1,200 Saturday, the official government news agency reported.

Two Sections Collapse

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Residents of a huge government-built housing complex in the Tlatelolco district, site of perhaps the single greatest catastrophe of the quake, were evacuated because of structural damage to the buildings still standing. Two sections of the 13-story Nuevo Leon apartment building, each housing about 3,000 people, collapsed in the Thursday shock.

“I won’t come back here,” said Sergio Sanchez, 25, a choreographer who lived on the 18th floor. “What if there’s another quake?”

Late Saturday, along the manicured boulevards and parks of downtown, hundreds of thousands endured another night of forced camping under the only roof considered safe--the open sky.

Tourists mixed with homeless residents, joined together in shock. “I’d rather spend the night on the ground in a park than spend another night on the top floor of this hotel,” said Jack Stevens, an American who weathered the two massive quakes in the damaged Maria Isabel Hotel. “I’ve had enough. I’d rather give up clean sheets than my life.”

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Sightseers strolled down the streets, gazing calmly as bodies were pulled from shattered heaps of concrete--and sometimes exasperating weary rescue workers.

‘Move Along Quickly’

“Move along, move along quickly!” volunteer traffic controllers barked.

But underlying the hubbub was fear.

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“There’s an epidemic of hysteria,” said Dr. Miguel Calderon, a physician treating the wounded at the collapsed apartment building in the Tlatelolco neighborhood.

Roads to the airport were jammed with tourists and natives seeking flights abroad or refuge in the provinces. Other main arteries leading out of town were also jammed. So desperate were some people to leave that scalpers were selling airline tickets at three times their face value.

“We don’t know what we are going to do or when this is going to stop,” said Carolina Olivares, 41, who along with hundreds of other people in the hard-hit Colonia Roma district huddled near her possessions and waited for friends and relatives to take her away--anywhere, she said, but preferably to a one-story house.

“We’re going to leave until it stops quaking,” said Olivares.

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Also contributing to this story were Times staff writers J. Michael Kennedy and Marita Hernandez in Mexico City and Cathleen Decker, Patt Morrison, Victor Valle, Dick Emerson and Leonard Greenwood in Los Angeles.


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