Rescuers in Mexico race to find 12-year-old trapped under debris from school after earthquake

First responders have worked for hours to rescue a little girl from the rubble at Enrique Rebsamen School. An earthquake hit Mexico City on September 19, 2017. (Courtesy: Mexican National Defense Secretary)

MEXICO CITY, MEXICO – Rescuers in Mexico City continued to claw through an elementary school’s debris Thursday in an urgent attempt to reach a 12-year-girl, two days after a powerful earthquake trapped her and killed at least 250 people across central Mexico.

The rescue attempt at the capital’s Colegio Enrique Rebsamen came amid concerns the structure could collapse further. It was one of many searches underway at buildings that collapsed in the region after Tuesday’s magnitude 7.1 quake, the country’s second major temblor in less than two weeks.

At the school, officials say 26 bodies — including those of 21 children — have been found and 11 people had been rescued. But a search for survivors intensified Wednesday when rescuers made contact with the 12-year-old girl and temperature readings suggested two others might be alive inside, CNN affiliate Foro TV reported.

Rescuers have been hauling chunks of lumber and concrete from the debris as others tried to shore up parts of the collapsed structure with beams. Workers were close to pinpointing the girl’s location Thursday morning, Mexican navy Adm. Jose Luis Vergara told Foro TV.

“At this moment we know that at least one girl is alive inside,” Vergara said.

Disaster survivors rescued from rubble — in Mexico and beyond

Workers are trying to reach the girl through two routes, he said. Soldiers, rescuers and medics didn’t stop working despite the rain and the risk of the building’s further collapse.

Shortly after a cloud of dust flew up from the site early Thursday, rescuer Alberto Salinas made a public plea on Foro TV, asking for beams, pulleys and other materials to shore up the structure. The building’s remains must be reinforced to prevent further collapse, Vergara said.

Details of the rescuers’ communications with the girl weren’t immediately available, and seemingly contradictory information emerged. Vergara said the girl’s precise location wasn’t known, but Foro TV earlier reported that rescue teams had given her oxygen and water.

Families of students who died there, meanwhile, were making funeral arrangements Thursday — and sharing those plans to each other through a WhatsApp messaging group they had joined before the earthquake, said Marisol Alexander, a woman who lives near the school.

Two Mexico earthquakes in 12 days

Tuesday’s quake turned dozens of buildings in central Mexico into dust and debris, killing at least 250 people, Mexico City Mayor Miguel Angel Mancera told Foro TV.

President Enrique Peña Nieto has declared a national emergency following the quake. It came 12 days after a 8.1 magnitude earthquake hit farther south on September 8, killing nearly 100 people.

The country has declared three days of mourning.

An unaccounted number of people are staying at shelters around Mexico City after losing their homes. Schools have closed indefinitely, and millions remain without power.

Hours before Tuesday’s quake, authorities held a citywide drill on the anniversary of the 1985 earthquake that killed an estimated 9,500 people in and around Mexico City.

‘I thought someone was kicking my chair’

About 2,000 public schools were damaged in Tuesday’s quake, Secretary of Public Education Aurelio Nuños said. Sixteen of the 212 affected schools in Mexico City had serious damage, he said.

At the private Colegio Enrique Rabsamen, where rescuers are trying to reach the girl, the temblor caused the school to fold in on itself, sandwiching and collapsing classroom onto classroom.

Foro TV interviewed two girls who said they were doing their English homework as the building began to shake.

“I thought someone was kicking my chair, but I turned around and no one was kicking me,” one girl told the station.

“The English teacher said there was a quake. Our teacher took us to the stairs, and that’s when part of the building started to come down. There was dust everywhere. We couldn’t see.”

Signs of life

Members of the Mexican navy, the Red Cross and the rescue team Los Topos joined recovery efforts Wednesday, and volunteers from across the region pitched in as well.

Luisa, a 16-year-old volunteer, had been at Colegio Enrique Rabsamen since Tuesday. She stopped to describe the grim scene as she made her way to deliver sweets to rescuers.

“It’s horrible. We saw a lot of children dead on the floor. Their moms crying,” she said, shaking her head.

The crews removed bricks and pieces of concrete by hand and used thermal, sound and movement sensors to aid their search, according to Foro TV. Throughout Wednesday, they held up their fists and gestured for silence so they could listen for signs of life, extending a veil of calm over an otherwise chaotic scene.

By late Wednesday afternoon, activity grew frenetic. Heavy machinery cleared away excess debris and brought in more to fortify collapsing areas of the buildings.

Rescuers said they found two temperature readings of vital organs that were confirmed by a doctor with the Federal Police.

“That person should be alive,” a rescuer told Foro TV.

“It’s definitely a body with life,” said another. “There was some movement of the fingers.”

Yet the weight of the lives lost weighed heavily on some volunteers, including Ivan Ramos. He has a son of his own who survived the earthquake.

“This is a tragedy,” he said. “It’s kids. It will take a long time to heal.”

President: Rescues are the priority

Mexico’s President asked people to stay indoors and away from the streets while rescue attempts continue. Still, residents are joining forces with rescue workers to search for survivors.

“Unfortunately, many people have lost their lives, including girls and boys in schools, buildings and houses. I want to express my condolences to those who lost a family member or a loved one. Mexico shares your grief,” Peña Nieto said. “The priority now is continue rescuing those who are still trapped and provide medical attention to the injured.”

The death toll from the temblor was likely high because it struck so close to Mexico City, one of North America’s most populous metropolises with more than 21 million people.

The earthquake also had a depth of 51 kilometers (32 miles), making it a shallow quake — which means more shaking and destruction on the Earth’s surface.

More than 100 deaths came in Mexico City. There were 69 deaths in Morelos state, 43 in Puebla state, 13 in the state of Mexico, four in Guerrero state and one in Oaxaca state, according to Luis Felipe Puente, national coordinator of civil protection for the Interior Ministry.

To provide some scope of the affected area, Oaxaca de Juarez, the capital of Oaxaca state, is almost 480 kilometers (300 miles) from Mexico City.

Missing students

Photos of missing students circulated on social media. Outside Colegio Enrique Rabsamen, dozens of parents waited, hoping to find their missing children.

The family of 7-year-old Jose Eduardo Huerta Rodriguez looked for hours through handwritten lists with the names of those who had been rescued. They also visited the city’s hospitals.

Late Tuesday, a family member who had stayed outside the school called Jose’s mother.

“He was still inside the school, and he was dead when they rescued him,” his aunt Paola Rodriguez told CNN.