Rescuers dug through the wreckage of a collapsed school in Mexico where at least 25 people died

Rescue workers and volunteers search for survivors at an elementary school in Mexico City after a 7.1 magnitude earthquake. (Sept. 20, 2017)


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 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.