Update: A high-ranking navy official said Thursday there is no missing child at a collapsed Mexico City school that had become a focus of rescue efforts following this week’s deadly magnitude 7.1 earthquake, though an adult may still be alive in the rubble.
The attention of many in Mexico and abroad had been drawn to the plight of a girl identified only as Frida Sofia, who was said to have been located alive under the pancaked school building and became a symbol for the hopes of thousands of rescuers working around the clock in search of quake survivors.
Multiple rescuers at the school site spoke of the girl, with some saying she had reported five more children alive in the same space. Yet no family members had emerged while rescue efforts continued, and some officials had begun to say her identity was not clear.
Navy Assistant Secretary Angel Enrique Sarmiento said that while there are blood traces and other signs suggesting that someone is alive, all the school’s children have been accounted for.
“We have done an accounting with school officials and we are certain that all the children either died, unfortunately, are in hospitals, or are safe at their homes,” Sarmiento said.
This story was originally published on September 21, 2017, at 10 a.m.
A delicate effort to reach a young girl buried in the ruins of her school stretched into a new day on Thursday, a vigil broadcast across the nation as rescue workers struggled in rain and darkness to pick away unstable debris and reach her.
The sight of her wiggling fingers early Wednesday became a symbol for the hope that drove thousands of professionals and volunteers to work frantically at dozens of wrecked buildings across the capital and nearby states looking for survivors of the magnitude 7.1 earthquake that killed at least 245 people in central Mexico and injured over 2,000.
Mexico's navy announced early Thursday it had recovered the body of a school worker from the Enrique Rebsamen school, but still had not been able to rescue the trapped child.
Rescuers removed dirt bucketful by bucketful and passed a scanner over the rubble every hour or so to search for heat signatures that could indicate trapped survivors. Shortly before dawn the pile shuddered ominously, prompting those working atop it to evacuate.
"We are just meters away from getting to the children, but we can't access it until it is shored up," said Vladimir Navarro, a university employee who was exhausted after working all night. "With the shaking there has been, it is very unstable and taking any decision is dangerous."
Mexico City Mayor Miguel Ángel Mancera said the number of confirmed dead in the capital had risen from 100 to 115. An earlier federal government statement had put the overall toll at 230, including 100 deaths in Mexico City.
President Enrique Peña Nieto declared three days of mourning while soldiers, police, firefighters, and everyday citizens kept digging through rubble, at times with their hands gaining an inch at a time, at times with cranes and backhoes to lift heavy slabs of concrete.
"There are still people groaning. There are three more floors to remove rubble from. And you still hear people in there," said Evodio Dario Marcelino, a volunteer who was working with dozens of others at a collapsed apartment building.
In all, 52 people had been rescued alive since the quake, the city's Social Development Department said, adding in a tweet: "We won't stop." It was a race against time, Peña Nieto warned in a tweet of his own saying that "every minute counts to save lives."
But the country's attention focused on the collapsed Enrique Rebsamen school on the city's south side, where 21 children and five adults have now been confirmed dead.
Hopes rose Wednesday when workers told local media they had detected signs that one girl was alive and was speaking to them through a hole dug in the rubble. Thermal imaging suggested several more people might be in the airspace around her.
A volunteer rescue worker, Hector Mendez, said cameras lowered into the rubble suggested there might be four people still inside, but he added that it wasn't clear if anyone besides the girl was alive.
Dr. Alfredo Vega, who was working with the rescue team, said that a girl whom he identified only as "Frida Sofia" had been located alive under the pancaked floor slabs.
Vega said "she is alive, and she is telling us that there are five more children alive" in the same space. But the navy said the identity of the girl is unclear because no relatives of the child have come forward with information.
The debris removed from the school changed as crews worked their way deeper, from huge chunks of brick and concrete to pieces of wood that looked like remnants of desks and paneling to a load that contained a half dozen sparkly hula-hoops.
Rescuers carried in lengths of wide steel pipe big enough for someone to crawl through, apparently trying to create a tunnel into the collapsed slabs of the three-story school building. But a heavy rain fell during the night, and the tottering pile of rubble had to be shored up with hundreds of wooden beams.
People have rallied to help their neighbors in a huge volunteer effort that includes people from all walks of life in Mexico City. Doctors, dentists, and lawyers stood alongside construction workers and street sweepers, handing buckets of debris or chunks of concrete hand-to-hand down the line.
If you want to help the victims of the Mexico earthquake, the following local and international organizations are providing aid: Topos México is receiving donations through PayPal and its bank account; the crowdfunding website Global Giving is raising $1 million to provide emergency relief; Fondos Unidos México, which belongs to the United Way network, is raising emergency funds; Red Cross Mexico is on the ground helping relief efforts; and Project Paz is directing all donations towards helping the victims of the earthquake.