Bodies Unidentified, Records Scarce : 4 Weeks After Quake, Kin Still Seek Mexico Victims

Times Staff Writer

Your attention, please. Your attention. We are now going to give information. . . .

The city official spoke with the detachment of a department store clerk, although tragedy was all he had to offer. He called out descriptions of unidentified bodies found in the ruins of the Juarez Hospital, which collapsed in Mexico City's Sept. 19 earthquake.

As he spoke, families waiting for word of dead relatives gathered around his small table. They listened, trying to pick up some detail that would identify a loved one.

Four weeks after the ground shook here, felling hundreds of buildings, relatives of the missing are still trying to find the bodies of their relatives.

Some hold vigils at wrecked buildings, waiting for demolition workers to pull corpses from the rubble. Others travel to government offices and cemeteries looking for traces of lost family members.

A few of the more hopeful paste up photos in public places, on the chance that someone has seen their relative or friend alive.

The searches are grim and frustrating. There appears to be no record of many of the dead. The last estimate of the dead published here was 7,000.

There are many places where information might be available--cemeteries, district halls, hospitals, offices where health and court records are collected--but no one place has all the information.

Yet, the relatives are persistent. The families at Juarez Hospital have camped out in a makeshift tent city since the big quake.

We have a man, 35 to 40 years old, 1.6 meters tall, dark hair, a filling on the second molar, a silver bracelet with the name Jose....

For many families of the dead from Mexico City's earthquake, recovery of the body and burial are considered to be sacred duties.

"This is my daughter and I don't want her thrown away in a plastic bag like trash," said Jose Ansaldo Perez, a farmer from Chalco who was waiting at Juarez Hospital for the body of his daughter, Maria Guadelupe, a nurse. "If God permits, I will wait until they have uncovered the last stone."

Back to Family Home

Families camping at the hospital site spoke of the need for a "Christian burial" or at least of returning the remains to the family home.

"I say, I want to get the body, even in decomposition, to take back to our village," a farmer from Michoacan state said.

For the most part, they spoke calmly--almost clinically--as if unaffected by the disaster, by the dust, by the noise of machinery pulling concrete slabs away, by the occasional smell of decayed flesh or by the tension of waiting for word.

Only an open-air Catholic Mass later, during which a list of identified dead was read, brought tears.

A female cadaver, 30 to 35 years old, wearing a white patient's smock with pajamas underneath decorated with little leaves and ducks. . . .

The sad homemade posters asking for help in locating the missing adorn public offices, subway stations, hospital bulletin boards and workplaces. Almost always, they feature a snapshot, descriptions, and several phone numbers.

Answers are difficult to come by.

Poster for Missing Girl

Ocotlan Linares, who is searching for her niece, Patricia, 17, put up such a poster all over town. Other relatives held vigils at the collapsed Conalep technical school where Patricia was last seen alive, running down a hallway.

Linares has visited hospitals and government offices, but without success. "All we hear is, 'Not here, not here,' " she said.

Beyond the confusion and heartbreak of specific cases, the government seems unwilling or unable to provide general information on the dead.

Several cemetery directors refused to provide data on the number of earthquake dead they have buried, saying that the information had been sent to the mayor's office, which was handling all inquiries.

Official Doesn't Know

But when asked to provide the numbers, and places of burial or cremation, Alicia Coquet, a spokesman for City Hall, answered, "I don't have the faintest idea."

. . . Black hair with specks of gray, misaligned upper teeth. . . .

The strange case of Luis Ramon Maldonado, a missing victim, more or less officially ended the long search for the living in the ruins of Mexico City buildings.

Luis Ramon was a 9-year-old boy believed to have been trapped alive in the collapse of a fallen section of an apartment building on Venustiano Carranza Street.

Family members and rescuers insisted that they heard him tapping and talking beneath the debris. In the last few days of September and early October, rescuers tunneled frantically into the heap of concrete and brick while reporters for newspapers, television and radio monitored the search.

Grandfather's Body Found

But a week of effort turned up only the body of the boy's grandfather.

Some rescue officials doubt that there ever were any human sounds from beneath the ruins. Local newspaper reporters who had printed wild stories about conversations with the boy turned angry, accusing the family of simply trying to speed recovery of a strongbox holding thousands of pesos.

The family, which was only passing through Mexico City when the earthquake struck, moved on last weekend. Workers stopped trying to dismantle the building. Luis Ramon has yet to be found.

We have a bank card, number 540-241-446. . . .

Most victims of the earthquake, and of its powerful aftershock the next day, are presumed to have been buried in Mexico City's 122 cemeteries, most of which are government-operated.

Six Common Graves

One of the largest is the Dolores Cemetery, where identified victims were placed in family plots by relatives, and the unidentified in at least six common graves or cremated at government order.

A conversation overheard at a mass grave in Dolores:

"Well, at least you found them," a portly maintenance worker said with a sigh.

"No, no, just my uncle. My cousin is missing," responded another, the stub of an airline ticket from Monterrey sticking out of his pocket.

"My daughter died at the Commerce and Labor Secretariat. A workmate followed the body here. They were thrown here in bags," the large man said. "The cemetery has no record. City Hall has no record. I only know what her colleague told me. I suppose she is here."

Record of Uncle

"I found a record of my uncle at Cuauhtemoc Borough Hall," said the man from Monterrey. But nothing of my cousin."

"Well, you know about one, for sure."

. . . Found with a green leather keyholder with seven keys and a Citizen watch. . . .

Hundreds of victims were buried at San Lorenzo Tezonco Cemetery, in far southern Mexico City, a scene of some macabre disorder.

Five rows of individual plots decorated with flowers and new tombstones mark the graves of about 750 earthquake victims.

To make room for the newly dead, diggers have excavated tombs dug seven years ago. Under a law passed in the 1970s, burial plots in government cemeteries are good for only seven years.

If anyone has doubts or wants more details, please come to the information table.

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