Demolition Plan Could Doom Trapped Victims : Some of Ruined Buildings May Be Blown Up to Stop Spread of Disease From Decaying Bodies

Times Staff Writer

As residents of this stricken capital returned to work and resumed their usual routines Monday, the government wrestled with the question of whether to avert the spread of disease by demolishing buildings that might still hold trapped survivors of Mexico City’s devastating earthquakes.

Growing concern that decaying corpses might spread disease throughout the city was pushing officials toward a decision that would probably spell death for undiscovered survivors.

Dogs Search Ruins

Before giving the order to blow up some of the nearly 600 buildings destroyed or damaged by last week’s quakes, officials decided to let 50 specially trained dogs from the United States, West Germany, France, Switzerland and other countries explore the ruins for signs of life. The dogs can detect the scent of humans.


In several cases Monday, just as rescue workers were about to give up hope of finding any sign of life in a demolished structure, a dog’s bark brought new efforts. Sometimes, random digging by rescue volunteers turned up a remarkably sound survivor.

“We are still looking, stone by stone” for survivors, said Alberto Melendez, a district official in Venustiano Carranza, a battered section of the city.

But Navy Secretary Miguel Angel Gomez, who is in charge of excavation of the hard-hit Juarez Avenue area, cautioned that the danger of an epidemic grows greater every day from the decomposing bodies still trapped in the rubble.

“One must remember it’s been more than four days,” he said.

Gomez said that all decisions to pull down buildings with heavy bulldozers and dynamite were being made by a commission under the control of Mayor Ramon Aguirre.

“There is no sanitary program established to cope with the magnitude of the problem,” said Armando Luna Rosa, head of the city’s forensic service.

The city government has estimated that there are 2,000 survivors trapped beneath the debris of central Mexico City.

There were conflicting reports Monday about the death toll from the back-to-back earthquakes that struck this capital and four adjacent states on Thursday morning and Friday night.

The Mexico City Police Department and the attorney general’s office said they have recovered 2,832 bodies in the capital, and the president’s office said about 300 people had been killed elsewhere in Mexico. But the State Department in Washington said the Mexican government had reported 3,461 known dead, and the Mexican Red Cross projected that the final toll would be at least 5,000. There was no explanation for the discrepancy in the figures.

4,180 Reported Missing

The police also reported that there were 4,180 people still missing. Mexico City’s health department said at least 11,000 were injured by the quakes, which smashed the heart of this city of 18 million. The number of people left homeless has been estimated at between 25,000 and 300,000.

On Monday, despite streets still jammed with rubble, cranes and earth-moving equipment, some of the capital’s routines resumed as the work force returned to offices and factories after three days of public mourning. Traffic on the broad Paseo de la Reforma was as jammed as on any Monday morning.

Many shops reopened for business, although other buildings were closed pending inspection by engineers and architects, and workers arriving at their shuttered offices were left wondering whether they still had jobs.

Public services were being restored. Presidential spokesman Ricardo Ampudia said Sunday that only 5% of the city remained without electricity and 20% did not have drinkable water.

Round-the-clock rescue work continued, augmented by foreign volunteers. Despite indications that the corpses under the debris far outnumber the survivors, shouts of joy over the discovery of a buried survivor could occasionally be heard.

Medical Student Rescued

Early Monday, French-trained German shepherd dogs wagged their tails, barked and scratched at a dusty spot inside a makeshift tunnel beneath the ruins of Benito Juarez Hospital, where at least 900 doctors, nurses, medical technicians and patients were believed trapped.

Rescue workers followed the dog, picks and shovels in hand. Carefully removing a web of steel-reinforced concrete, they dug out a trapped medical student, Jose Hernandez Rojas, who had been buried for 96 hours.

Hernandez, who had talked to rescuers on Sunday, his 23rd birthday, as they dug toward him, was evacuated face down on a folding stretcher. As he emerged from the tunnel, rescue workers, police and other spectators applauded. Hernandez screamed twice in pain as paramedics moved him to an ambulance.

Five babies were also found alive Monday--two in the wreckage of the Juarez hospital, three more in the maternity department of the Centro Medico hospital complex. “They were protected because they were in cribs,” one rescue worker told United Press International. “The ceiling fell on top of the cribs and formed air pockets.”

In Cuauhtemoc district, tiny Patricia Aguilar, 20 months old, was rescued after a French-trained dog named Bobby scratched and barked at a spot above the ruins of an apartment building. She was saved after an hour of digging, unharmed although dehydrated, rescue workers said.

25 Survivors Saved

About 25 survivors were evacuated through a hole burrowed into the wreckage of the Conalep Technical School near Juarez Avenue.

“We’re going to dig another hole. A dog has detected something,” said Dr. German Oropeza, a physician in charge of the rescue efforts at the school.

“We need more small tools and electric saws,” Oropeza added, dabbing dust from his face.

He estimated that about 150 students and teachers were buried inside and that few of them now would be found living.

Fumigation of areas where bodies are trapped must begin soon, said Alfonso Millan, director of the medical center of the National Autonomous University of Mexico. “If not, infection and contamination will become imminent,” he said.

Relatives Oppose Razing

The relatives of the missing, still holding out some hope that survivors can be unearthed, opposed the razing of any buildings.

“It is our only hope, that they keep looking,” said Anibal Aramburu, who was holding a vigil for his son, who lived in a toppled apartment building in the Colonia Roma neighborhood.

Demolition was begun on office buildings where officials were certain no one had been working when the first quake hit at 7:18 a.m. Thursday. But they moved cautiously.

Late Sunday night, the first blasts of dynamite echoed through downtown Mexico, as workers blew up a crumpled office building into smaller, more easily cleared stacks of debris. The work forced evacuation of several downtown neighborhoods, adding to the city’s growing population of homeless.

In addition, groups of masked fumigation workers, carrying tanks of chloride chemicals on their backs, moved gingerly over piles of concrete to spray into crevices where the smell of rotting corpses was strongest.

Late Sunday, Red Cross officials working among the many downed buildings surrounding central Juarez Avenue reported that about 405 people had been rescued alive in that neighborhood alone and 154 corpses had been found.

50% of Rescued Survive

But the Health Ministry reported that of the people pulled alive from ruined buildings, only 50% survived after being taken to hospitals. Many died from internal injuries, blood loss and shock.

Blackened corpses were being removed from ruins throughout the central city. At Benito Juarez Hospital, 50 of the 60 victims recovered from the wreckage were dead, a relief worker said.

The mounting toll and decay of the corpses forced quick funerals. As bodies were delivered to the Social Security baseball stadium, a temporary morgue, they were immediately fumigated with insecticide.

Concern at Insects, Rats

“Insects would be the principal transmitters of an epidemic,” said Jorge Humberto Morales, a physician on the scene.

There was concern that Mexico City’s enormous rat population might also spread disease, especially bubonic plague.

Individual burials took place in quick succession at the San Lorenzo Civil Cemetery on the city’s outskirts. Five huge common graves were prepared for unidentified bodies.

The rescue work was delayed by equipment shortages and confused coordination.

Six members of a family surnamed Oscar were rescued from the vast 13-story Nuevo Leon apartment building in Tlatelolco after workers pounded for hours at a concrete floor near the bottom of the mountain of wreckage.

Lacked Power Tools

“We could have done it in a half hour if we just had simple power tools,” said a rescue worker.

A fireman from the Dade County, Fla., Fire Department who was working at Nuevo Leon complained that his team was delayed entering rescue sites because their passes, issued by one military commander, were declared invalid by another.

The government solicited private and corporate donations for a national rebuilding fund. The quakes are estimated to have caused billions of dollars in damage to Mexico, whose economy is in recession and laboring under a $96-billion foreign debt.