Quake Ruins Yield More Survivors : Desperate Rescue Efforts Continue; Toll Climbs to 4,000

Times Staff Writer

Shouts of “Alive!” or more often a murmured “Dead” broke through the din of sledgehammers and bulldozers Sunday as rescue workers, bolstered by foreign assistance, stepped up their frantic efforts to dig out survivors and victims of Mexico City’s earthquakes.

More survivors were pulled from the rubble, and international aid poured in to help Mexico recover from the two quakes Thursday and Friday that killed thousands and left legions of homeless people living in the streets. Officials reported that they had recovered 2,832 bodies by late Sunday and put the death toll at 4,000, but others, including U.S. Ambassador to Mexico John Gavin, have projected a total of at least 10,000 dead.

The Mexican Red Cross said 180,000 people in Mexico City were directly affected by the back-to-back quakes. The first hit Thursday morning and measured 7.8 on the Richter scale. The Friday aftershock, a major quake in its own right, measured 7.3.

Estimates of the physical damage sustained by the capital and four adjacent states were increased. Mexico City Mayor Ramon Aguirre said that well over 400 buildings were either seriously damaged or destroyed and that another 196 still standing will have to be demolished and more than 200 repaired.

About a quarter of the most severely damaged buildings were either owned or used by government agencies; it was unclear how many were government-built.


All over the city, a new traffic sign appeared on street corners. The sign--a drawing of a building with a red slash over it--warned pedestrians and drivers away from structures on the verge of collapse.

After the Mexican government reversed itself and agreed to accept aid from abroad, aircraft from around the world began to shuttle relief supplies to the stricken capital, the world’s largest with about 18 million people.

Disaster-relief and demolition experts from the United States, France, Switzerland and Germany joined the thousands of Mexican Red Cross workers and citizen-volunteers hunting through the mountains of rubble. Using ultrasound equipment, muscle power and dogs trained to detect the scent of humans, the workers crawled over wreckage, pulling back fallen ceilings and walls to look for victims.

Volunteer medical teams from the United States, Cuba and several other Latin American countries rushed to the capital to back up Mexico’s own beleaguered corps of medical personnel. Hundreds of doctors, nurses and medical technicians were feared dead in the collapse of three hospitals.

A C-141 transport plane arrived from Kelly Air Force Base in San Antonio, carrying a 19-member team organized by two construction companies, the H.B. Zachary company of San Antonio and Spirit Construction of Baton Rouge, La. The team will evaluate structures for demolition.

The plane also brought 1,000 respirators for firefighters and portable generators.

U.S. Air Force Flight

The United States sent a C-141 Air Force cargo plane to Mexico City loaded with water pumps, power saws, water cans, sleeping bags, field jackets, generators and cots to help with the rescue efforts and to supply the shelters springing up in the city to house the homeless, said U.S. Defense Department spokesman Larry Icenogle.

Governments of more than 20 other nations and international organizations sent tons of food, medicine and other provisions.

The Red Cross began shipping medical supplies in response to appeals from the Mexican Red Cross. The first plane load contained 10,000 pounds of urgently needed intravenous fluids and equipment.

Later, the Red Cross put out a bulletin asking for 30,000 units of tetanus and typhus vaccine, 30,000 units of gamma globulin and 10,000 units of anesthesia, ham radio operators reported. Anesthetics were said to be in especially short supply.

The massive relief effort was impeded by a shortage of earth-moving and demolition equipment--and by disorganization.

Lack of Coordination

“The movement that is under way is enormous,” said President Miguel de la Madrid during a tour of the devastation, but he acknowledged that rescue efforts had lacked coordination.

“The action will be more organized in the coming days when the capital of the republic begins to return to normal and the services are re-established as soon as possible,” De la Madrid said.

“We have many deaths to lament,” he added, “but at the same time we have been able to save many lives. Saving lives has been the first priority of this emergency program.”

The armed forces are overseeing the mobilization of 50,000 volunteers and 20,000 troops, some of whom have not slept for days.

Despite dwindling hopes of finding survivors, some near-miraculous rescues were reported. The government said more than 1,000 survivors have been pulled from crumpled buildings.

12 Students Rescued

Twelve students trapped in the jumble of what had been the five-story Conalep Technical School downtown were discovered over the weekend. More are believed to be buried alive inside.

Trained German shepherds from Switzerland were sniffing about the school’s ruins Sunday looking for more survivors. The dogs, led by Swiss technical experts in orange jumpsuits, occasionally stopped and buried their noses in the dust, indicating that they had picked up a human scent. At that point, volunteers with picks and shovels would clear away the rubble.

Several boys were trapped within, said Dr. Oropeza Gonzalez, a physician working at the site.

A dog named Bubu stopped at one spot, and rescue workers burrowed into the debris. A hand reached out, and a boy whispered that his legs were numb and that there were other injured friends nearby. Fruit and water were lowered into the hole, and workers prepared to lift away the heavy slabs of concrete.

Argument Breaks Out

At another place, an argument broke out between workers and soldiers on guard about whether to start searching where someone had heard a sound from deep in a pile of rubble.

“They’re alive in there!” cried a worker. A colonel demurred, thinking that opening a hole might be dangerous for the rescue workers.

“There are living beings within,” said the doctor, Gonzalez, expressing the opinion that prevailed. “That’s our first priority.”

But it was clear that not all the students were to be rescued. The acid smell of corpses was beginning to seep from the wreckage. A Red Cross worker said students on the second floor were killed while sitting at their desks.

At the ruined Romano Hotel, Red Cross workers unearthed several women guests still alive three days after they were entrapped. More dogs roamed the ruins, with workers occasionally calling for quiet to listen for sounds below. At a makeshift tunnel, someone said he had spotted a woman survivor. “Blonde,” ran the word through a waiting shift of rescuers. “Alive,” they said.

Walks Out of Debris

The woman walked out, supported by two dust-covered volunteers, and entered an ambulance.

Red Cross crews, boring into the cellar of the Romano Hotel from an adjacent building, also came upon a maintenance worker, Gregorio Perez, 27, who had been standing in thigh-deep water, with several stories of rubble hanging over him, for three days.

Two mountain climbers helped rescue a 50-year-old man trapped on the eighth floor of a wrecked building.

At the Nuevo Leon apartments, where two-thirds of the 13-story, government-built building collapsed in the first quake, rescue crews late Sunday pulled a 60-year-old woman, still alive, from the top of the rubble and lowered her to the ground by a crane as a watching crowd applauded. Eight corpses were also found Sunday at the building, and at least 1,000 people are thought to be trapped inside.

Authorities also faced the urgent problem of how and where to bury the dead. Bodies unclaimed after 48 hours were to be buried in mass graves.

Funerals were staged for some of the victims already identified, but a shortage of caskets prevented elaborate ceremonies. “They are buried in individual shrouds hurriedly prepared, and the ceremony doesn’t last more than 10 minutes, . . . without a funeral prayer, without flowers,” the El Universal newspaper said.

Asked to Refill Graves

Cemetery workers were opening graves at San Lorenzo Civil Cemetery, but they asked mourners accompanying bodies to refill the graves themselves before they left.

Many unclaimed corpses were hastily transferred to cemeteries Sunday, as health officials grew nervous about the possibility of an epidemic. The administrator of the San Lorenzo cemetery said he expected to receive a shipment of 1,500 bodies for a mass burial.

As morgues filled to capacity, the bodies still being recovered from collapsed office buildings, schools and apartments were taken to sports stadiums, where they were wrapped in plastic and preserved with blocks of ice and formaldehyde. There, the bodies were laid out for inspection by residents searching for missing relatives and friends.

Meanwhile, health authorities warned of the danger of bubonic plague from rotting bodies and typhoid from dirty water. Children at a refugee shelter in the Tlatelolco neighborhood contracted smallpox and chicken pox. Citizens were urged in radio broadcasts to obtain smallpox vaccinations and tetanus shots.

Shots for Tetanus

Rescue workers are being inoculated against tetanus by sidewalk medical teams and are periodically bathed by disinfectant poured over them from buckets.

Along hard-hit Juarez Avenue, soldiers were spraying buildings with chemicals to kill bacteria. The city government maintains that the spraying is taking place only where it has been determined that there is no chance of finding survivors.

“We have to guard against an epidemic,” said Angel Rivera, a private fumigator who volunteered to help. “The chances are small, but we have to start now, just in case.”

The fear of further building collapses prevented thousands from returning to their homes. In the densely populated Tlatelolco neighborhood, housing authorities ordered all residents to abandon their apartments.

Returning for Belongings

Tlatelolco was home to more than 100,000 residents before last Thursday’s quake. Most buildings were abandoned even before the order came, although some residents were returning to claim their belongings. A mattress came flying out of the 13th story of one building Sunday.

The Nuevo Leon apartment building, where hundreds probably died, is part of the Tlatelolco complex. Similar structures in the neighborhood begun to lean menacingly, housing officials said. Of the 101 buildings standing in the neighborhood, 18 are said to be uninhabitable.

Some residents camped out in the parklike areas between buildings and took turns at night guarding their former residences.

One camper, musician Luis Rojas, said he was tired of the cold and would soon go to a hotel. “When my money runs out, I don’t know what I’ll do,” he said. He was afraid of going to a refugee camp because of possible disease, although medical personnel appeared to be stationed at several shelters in the city.

Red Cross Shelters

The Red Cross has set up 300 shelters for the homeless. The city government has established many others, but hundreds of people are still camping on the city’s broad boulevards. It is impossible to count the homeless, whose numbers have been estimated at between 20,000 and 250,000.

Mayor Aguirre said that damaged buildings in the city will be inspected to determine whether builders had complied with the building codes in effect when the construction was completed.

“If the specifications do not match, those responsible . . . will be punished according to law,” Aguirre said.

Mexico has enacted several different building codes in recent decades, often changing them following tremors.

Critical Water Shortages

On Sunday, water shortages grew critical as it became evident that it will take weeks to repair broken pipes and aqueducts. The center of the city has been without water since Thursday. Even residents of those neighborhoods with water were urged to boil it to avoid possible typhoid infection. About 500 water trucks were making deliveries in the hardest-hit areas.

About 40% of telephone lines are operating in the city, the Communications and Transport Ministry said. A few long-distance lines have opened, but regular international service will take weeks to restore.

No attempt has been made to estimate the cost of the damage, although it will surely run into the hundreds of millions of dollars. The government has established a bank account at the Nacional Financiera Bank to take cash donations from abroad.