More than 300 children were studying in their classrooms at a Mexico City private school when the earth started violently shaking.
In an instant, concrete walls and ceilings in parts of the school came crashing down, crushing students as young as first-graders.
Neighbors, relatives of the children and even a passing taxi driver rushed toward the giant plume of dust, prying away debris with their bare hands, desperately searching for any sign of life Tuesday afternoon. They worked through the night.
By Wednesday morning, rescuers had carried out at least 25 bodies from a pancaked building on the campus of Enrique Rebsamen school on Mexico City’s south side. Twenty-one of them were students — children with names like Daniela, Diana and Oscar. They were all believed to be 7or 8 years old and were still dressed in their white and black school uniforms.
Those killed at the school were among at least 230 people who perished across five states in Tuesday’s magnitude 7.1 earthquake. Dozens of buildings collapsed across central Mexico, including large office buildings and apartment towers in Mexico City.
Authorities at the school late Tuesday had warned that there were many people still trapped inside. Hundreds of rescuers, including soldiers and firefighters, worked all night long, determined to find them.
As the helmeted workers pulled back debris using shovels, buckets, at times a backhoe, they listened closely. Sounds came from the collapsed building.
Paramedic Edgar Sanchez, who volunteered to help, said it was unclear whether they were the cries of people or just the building settling.
“We hear a little bit of noise, but it’s hard to identify what it is and where it’s coming from,” he said.
Rescuers heard what they were sure was a child. According to Mexico’s Foro TV, rescuers shouted to the girl to move her hand if she could hear them. She did. A search dog entered the wreckage and confirmed she was alive.
Rescuers pulled the girl free. Not long after, a boy was saved. Video showed him crying as he was carried from the rubble.
Each time, the large crowd gathered around the rescue operation erupted in cheers. Strangers embraced one another, said those who were there.
Finding survivors, Sanchez said, “makes us motivated to keep looking.”
Although everyone knew the chances of finding survivors became less likely as the day wore on, “we are going to have hope until the last child is out,” Sanchez said.
Late Wednesday morning, rescuers announced there were still at least three people buried, possibly alive.
They believed they were close to finding one of them.
Any time they thought they heard a promising sound Wednesday afternoon, rescuers demanded silence from the crowd of several hundred people. Those were tense but hopeful moments — everyone fixated their gaze anxiously on the rescue efforts — but time and again they turned up nothing.
The day wore on. Tension rose. Police guarding the area started having less patience for journalists and others seeking to enter the scene.
And then, rescuers heard a girl’s voice.
As night fell, they hadn’t reached her. But they knew she was alive.
Many parents of the missing children had spent Tuesday night and early Wednesday waiting behind police lines for information about their kids. Some wailed as they got bad news, videos show.
Eventually, authorities led the parents of the remaining missing children to a more private location. But other relatives, friends and neighbors of those trapped in the building checked a makeshift list tracking the fate of each of those pulled out.
Lines of tape strung up between a tree and a street sign held sheets of paper that said which hospitals survivors had been taken to. Then there was the blue poster board, which listed the names of those confirmed dead.
Elena Villaseñor, 44, was the volunteer in charge of updating the list. She said she had watched friends and family members of victims approach it, still unsure of what had happened because intermittent cellphone reception in many of the most affected areas made communication hard. She said she had broken tragic news to several people.
“When they say the name [of the victim], we know,” Villaseñor said. “We take hold of their elbows; we help steady them. It’s the most horrible thing.”
Villaseñor, a mother of three, sprung into action as a volunteer Tuesday after she picked up one of her children from a nearby school that was not affected by the quake. She saw the devastation at Enrique Rebsamen, which has pupils from kindergarten to middle school, and decided she couldn’t go home.
“I’m a mother,” she said. “It’s so hard to see this. But all you can do is breathe and keep going.”
Villaseñor was one of hundreds of volunteers who showed up to help. Some hauled long pieces of lumber, which rescuers used to pry up slabs of concrete. Others brought sanitation and medical supplies. One woman pushed a shopping cart overflowing with greasy chicharron.
Adrian Mercado, 66, who lives six blocks from the school, got up at 4 a.m. Wednesday and brought rescuers 400 breakfast tortas.
He didn’t know anybody personally affected by the tragedy. “But these are my neighbors,” he said as he hauled plastic buckets filled with debris away from the wreckage.
Pedro Serrano, a 29-year-old doctor, also had joined the rescue effort. On Tuesday, he wriggled into a crevice that led inside the debris.
“We dug holes, then crawled in on our bellies,” Serrano said.
He managed to arrive at a collapsed classroom.
“We saw some chairs and wooden tables,” Serrano told the Associated Press. “The next thing we saw was a leg, and then we started to move rubble and we found a girl and two adults.”
None of them was alive.
The search continues for victims buried under the rubble of a fallen office building along Calle Alvaro Obregon in La Condesa neighborhood of Mexico City.(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)
Susana Coronel Flores, whose nephew, Adrian Moreno, is missing in a collapsed building, sheds a tear as the search continues for victims buried under the rubble along Calle Alvaro Obregon in La Condesa neighborhood of Mexico City.(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)
Residents stand in the street after the earthquake alarm sounded in Mexico City on Saturday morning before the shaking from a magnitude 6.1 aftershock in Oaxaca state reached the capital, causing buildings to sway.(Natacha Pisarenko / Associated Press)
Rescue teams stop their work Saturday after the earthquake alert sounded in Mexico City, four days after the powerful quake that hit central Mexico. There were no immediate reports of major new damage or casualties in the capital.(Ronaldo Schemidt / AFP/Getty Images)
Residents evacuate apartment buildings in the Tlatelolco neighborhood after an earthquake alert sounded in Mexico City on Saturday morning, four days after the powerful quake that hit central Mexico.(AFP / Getty Images)
Leodegaria Comonfort Ramirez, 49, whose home was destroyed in the recent quake, has a fractured shoulder and now shares a home with her neighbors in Jojutla. Her daughter was killed when the second story of the building they lived in came down on her head.(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)
Margarita Martinez, left, shown with her children, sits where her home used to stand in the Mexican town of Jojutla, Morelos.(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)
Maria Elena Jimenez Arizmendi, 81, sits outside her destroyed home in Jojutla with a few of her belongings packed into plastic bags.(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)
Heróico Ayuntamiento, Jojutla’s local government office, suffered major structural damage in the recent earthquake.(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)
Volunteers remove rubble alongside the Mexican military, beginning the reconstruction process where a block of homes in Jojutla was destroyed by the recent quake.(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)
Maria de Pilar Paez Castillo, 69, receives medical attention outside a tent that she sleeps in near her damaged home in Jojutla.(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)
Clara Velazquez Camargo, 77, right, tells her son Arturo Perez she would prefer to stay in a tent at a shelter at the La Perseverancia sport complex in Jojutla. “I want to live; I am afraid to return to my son’s home,” she said. The shelter is housing 350 people.(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)
Neighbors place a tarp over part of the street near Leodegaria Comonfort Ramirez’s home, left, which was destroyed in the recent quake in Jojutla, killing Ramirez’s daughter.(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)
The reconstruction process begins as residents discard their personal items damaged by the recent quake in Jojutla.(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)
A worker repairs power lines next to Heróico Ayuntamiento, Jojutla’s local government office.(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)
A crane removes a concrete stairway from a collapsed building in the Colonia neighborhood in Mexico City.(Pedro Pardo / AFP/Getty Images)
People pin notes and flowers to a sidewalk memorial at a park in front of one of a collapsed building in Mexico City.(Luis Perez / AFP/Getty Images)
Family members embrace as they wait for news of their relatives outside a quake-collapsed seven-story building in Mexico City’s Roma Norte neighborhood.(Rebecca Blackwell / Associated Press)
Japanese rescuers take part in the search for survivors at a flattened building in Mexico City three days after a strong quake hit central Mexico.(Yuri Cortez / AFP/Getty Images)
Soldiers and volunteers remove a car crushed by debris from a flattened building in Mexico City.(Alfredo Estrella / AFP/Getty Images)
Volunteer Elidia Marcos, 23, holds a sign asking for water, medicine and tools to aid victims of the earthquake in Mexico City.(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)
Volunteer Fernando Gedeño, 20, carries wood to be used to support the structure of the collapsed Enrique Rebsamen school on Mexico City’s south side.(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)
Refugio Gonzalez, 85, left, is comforted by volunteer Lety Rebollar, 19, of Mexico state, in a shelter holding 460 people displaced by the earthquake at Centro Deportivo Benito Juarez sports complex in Mexico City.(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)
Rosalba Ramirez Vargas, center, and the prayer group “the Best Friends of Jesus” pray the rosary while anxiously waiting for news from rescue crews searching for children trapped in the rubble at Enrique Rebsamen school in Mexico City.(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)
A rescue worker listens for signs of a person trapped under the rubble of a building felled by a 7.1 magnitude earthquake in Mexico City’s Ciudad Jardin neighborhood.(Eduardo Verdugo / Associated Press)
The Mexican Army load ruble into dump trucks while rescue teams work at night continuing to look for people trapped underneath a collapsed six story residential building in Colonia Condesa, in Mexico City.(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)
Rescue teams working at night continue to look for people trapped underneath the ruble of a collapsed six story residential building in Colonia Condesa, in Mexico City.(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)
The Mexican Army along side civilians load debris while search and rescue continues for people in a collapsed six story residential building in Colonia Condesa, in Mexico City.(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)
Members of the Mexican Navy look on while a search and rescue team ooks for victims under the rubble at a collapsed building where five people were found dead in Colonia Roma in Mexico City.(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)
Rescuers work at the top of a destroyed building in Mexico City trying to rescue a man two days after the magnitude 7.1 earthquake.(Pedro Mera / Getty Images)
A rescuer from Israel, center, takes part in the search for survivors in a flattened building in Mexico City two days after a strong quake hit central Mexico.(YURI CORTEZ / AFP/Getty Images)
Rescue services and volunteers raise their hands to ask for absolute silence during their search for victims under the debris of the school that collapsed in Mexico City.(JOSE MENDEZ / EPA / Shutterstock)
Mexico City residents scan the names of people who have been rescued and others who are still missing after the magnitude 7.1 earthquake.(Pedro Pardo / AFP/Getty Images)
An army of rescuers, firefighters, police, soldiers and volunteers search for survivors in a flattened building in Mexico City.(Mario Vazquez / AFP/Getty Images)
People who lost their homes in the earthquake rest inside a gymnasium turned in an evacuation center in Mexico City.(Jorge Dan Lopez / EPA/Shutterstock)
Rescuers search for survivors amid the rubble of a building flattened by the earthquake.(Pedro Pardo / AFP/Getty Images)
Volunteers await news as rescue teams look for people trapped beneath the rubble of a six-story residential building in Colonia Condesa, Mexico City.(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)
Rescue teams use a blow torch on a slab of cement while looking for people trapped in the the rubble of a collapsed residential building in Mexico City Wednesday night.(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)
People anxiously wait for news from rescue crews as the search continues for children trapped in the rubble of Enrique Rebsamen School in Mexico City.(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)
Dairo Martinez, right, 15, looks for the name of his friend Reyna Davila, a student at Enrique Rebsamen School in Mexico City, on Sept. 20. The school collapsed in the 7.1 earthquake the day before.(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)
A pair of heavily damaged churches are left partially standing in Jojutla, Morelos state, Mexico, following a 7.1 earthquake that killed more than 200 people.(Rebecca Blackwell / Associated Press)
The sky is exposed from inside the Santiago Apostol Church, which collapsed during Tuesday’s 7.1 earthquake in the town of Atzala in Puebla state, Mexico.(Pablo Spencer / Associated Press)
The Santiago Apostol Church in Atzala, in Puebla state, suffered major damage during Tuesday’s 7.1 earthquake in Mexico.(Pablo Spencer / Associated Press)
Rescue workers search for people trapped inside a collapsed building in the Del Valle area of Mexico City.(Rebecca Blackwell / Associated Press)
A survivor is pulled from the rubble from a flattened building in Mexico City.(Pedro Pardo / AFP/Getty Images)
An aerial view shows a flattened building in Mexico City. The search for survivors was continuing a day after a powerful quake hit the central part of the country.(Mario Vazquez / AFP/Getty Images)
Rescuers use a dog to search for survivors who may be buried under the rubble of a building flattened by a 7.1 earthquake in Mexico City.(Diana Ulloa / AFP/Getty Images)
Search and rescue teams continue to remove rubble and look for people in a collapsed six-story residential building in Colonia Condesa, in Mexico City.(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)
Search and rescue teams remove rubble at a collapsed six-story residential building in Colonia Condesa, in Mexico City.(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)
Rescue workers search for children trapped inside the collapsed Enrique Rebsamen school in Mexico City.(Carlos Cisneros / Associated Press)
Rescuers work at the Enrique Rebsamen school after a 7.1 magnitude earthquake shook Mexico City.(EPA/Shutterstock )
In this photo provided by Francisco Caballero Gout, shot through a window of the Torre Latina, dust rises over downtown Mexico City during a 7.1 earthquake Tuesday.(Francisco Caballero Gout / Associated Press)
Volunteers and rescue workers search for children trapped inside the Enrique Rebsamen school, collapsed by a powerful earthquake in Mexico City.(Miguel Tovar / Associated Press)
Alejandra Reynoso, left, and boyfriend Alejandro Gamez wait for news on Gamez’s sister Karen Nayeli, who is missing at a collapsed office building along Calle Alvaro Obregon in Mexico City.(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)
People look for family and friends on a list of people rescued from an office building in Colonia Condesa, in Mexico City.(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)
Search and rescue workers continue looking for people trapped in a collapsed six-story residential building in Colonia Condesa, in Mexico City.(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)
A car crushed by debris from a damaged building after a quake rattled Mexico City.(ALFREDO ESTRELLA / AFP/Getty Images)
Rescuers, firefighters, police officers, soldiers and volunteers remove rubble and debris from a flattened building in search of survivors after a powerful quake in Mexico City.(Yuri Cortez / AFP/Getty Images)
An injured man is pulled out of a building that collapsed during an earthquake in the Roma Norte neighborhood of Mexico City.(Rebecca Blackwell / Associated Press)
People try to rescue survivors from a collapsed building in Mexico City on Tuesday.(Sáshenka Gutiérrez / EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)
People search for survivors in a collapsed building in the Roma neighborhood of Mexico City on Tuesday.(Enric Marti / Associated Press)
A construction worker searches a building that collapsed in Mexico City.(Eduardo Verdugo / Associated Press)
Rescuers and volunteers remove rubble from a collapsed building in search of survivors in Mexico City.(Yuri Cortez / AFP / Getty Images)
A car is crushed by debris from a building damaged in the 7.1 magnitude temblor.(Alfredo Estrella / AFP/Getty Images)
Hospital patients receive medical treatment on a Mexico City street after a magnitude 7.1 earthquake centered in neighborhing Puebla state.(Jose Mendez / European Pressphoto Agency)
People in Mexico City remove debris after a building collapsed in a powerful earthquake on Tuesday.(Alfredo Estrella / AFP/Getty Images)
A security guard walks over debris of a collapsed building in the capital.(Ronaldo Schemidt / AFP/Getty Images)
People in Mexico City search a building that collapsed after a powerful earthquake centered southeast in neighboring Puebla state on Tuesday.(Ronaldo Schemidt / AFP/Getty Images)
The rescuers left them there. There was no way to get them out.
Outside the school gates, rumors ran through the crowd of anxious parents that two families had received WhatsApp messages from girls trapped inside. Nobody could say for sure whether it was true.
Asked whether there was hope, Serrano looked weary but said workers were still trying.
“We can hear small noises,” he said. “We don’t know if they’re coming from above or below — from the walls above [crumbling] or from someone below calling for help.”
The work continued through the night as pickup trucks loaded with volunteer rescuers with shovels and pickaxes sped through the darkened streets of the capital.
Occasionally, searchers at the school would ask for silence so they could listen for signs of life.
The volunteers stopped passing wooden shoring beams and buckets of rubble and became quiet.
Silently, they held their fists in the air in a gesture of hope, solidarity and resilience.
Cecilia Sanchez in the Times Mexico bureau and the Associated Press contributed to this report.
5:06 p.m.: This article was updated throughout with Times reporting.
This article was originally published at 9:55 a.m.