In Mexico, a race against time to rescue earthquake survivors from the rubble

JUDY WOODRUFF: Grasping for a sliver of hope. A life-and-death drama played out today, two days after a 7.1 earthquake struck Mexico City and the surrounding region. The death toll stood at 245, with more than 2,000 hurt.

Our William Brangham is there, and filed this report.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: From dusk to dawn, and all through the day, they dug, trying to reach what they thought was a young girl trapped in the ruins of a collapsed school. The tale of the girl called Frida Sofia has gripped the country since early yesterday, when rescuers first heard her voice coming out of the wreckage.

RODOLFO RUVALCAVA (through interpreter): Yes, she told me her name. Apart from just her name, she told us there were two other kids, and that there were other bodies. We don't know if the others are alive.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Then, at mid-afternoon, word from the Mexican Navy: There is no missing child at the school.

ANGEL ENRIQUE SARMIENTO (through interpreter): We are sure it wasn't real, because, I repeat, we collaborated with public education, with the delegation and with the school, and all the totality of the children, regrettably, some are deceased. Others, I repeat, are at the hospital, and the rest are safe in their homes.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: At least 26 bodies have been recovered from the school. All but five of them were children. But on the day of the quake, a girl and a boy were pulled alive from the rubble.
A man had called to them to crawl through an opening in the side of the building, and they found their way out. Those small victories gave the rescue crews and volunteers the hope and strength to keep going. The quake hit Tuesday afternoon near the Puebla state town of Raboso, 76 miles southeast of Mexico City.

Since then, officials say more than 50 survivors have been freed in dramatic rescues across the area. Last night in the Del Valle neighborhood of Mexico City, rescuers were met with applause as they carried out a man who'd been trapped in a toppled apartment building. The scene was similar in the La Condesa neighborhood. Hundreds of rescuers searched to find four women believed to be trapped in this rubble, the remains of a seven-story apartment building.

We spoke with one volunteer who arrived just 30 minutes after the quake struck and hasn't left.

Have you been sleeping at all?

FABIAN COSSIO ORTEGA, Volunteer: Just on the corner of the street, yes. Some people haven't left. It's just, we cannot leave, you know? We have to stay.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Throughout the night, the work went on, removing dirt by the bucketful to prevent further collapse.

LEON DEL VALLE DIAZ, Rescuer (through interpreter): I believe people need help, and I would like to think there are still survivors. And, honestly, I have always helped when there have been disasters. My family and I have always helped in some way, either with provisions or by supporting them, like right now with the debris.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: In the center of the city today, rescuers dug through the remains of this textile factory. It's estimated that about 100 workers, mostly Japanese, were inside when the quake hit.

There's no official count of actually how many people were inside this building. It's estimated that about 30-some bodies have already been brought out. But rescue workers here are working frantically because they believe that there is still at least one other people who is alive inside the rubble who has been texting rescue workers on the outside, asking for help.

Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto has declared three days of national mourning. In a televised statement last night, he offered his own condolences.

PRESIDENT ENRIQUE PENA NIETO, Mexico (through interpreter): The whole of Mexican society is with you. We're with you in your pain. I reiterate to the residents of affected zones that you are not alone. Working together, we are going to make it through.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Nieto said aid is also coming in from Japan, the United States and other countries.

The help cannot come too soon. Several buildings in Mexico City are feared to be near collapse, and officials face the competing demands of trying to save lives, and beginning demolition work to ensure public safety.

For now, though, every single person we have talked to here is determined 100 percent to keep this solely a search-and-rescue mission — Judy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, William, you have now been to a couple of these collapsed sites. Tell us what it's like.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: The overwhelming response here is pretty incredible. There are hundreds of people from all over the country and from other countries as well volunteering their time.

They are taking time off work. They're coming from all walks of life, and shopkeepers, construction workers. I met a guy who runs a shop. Everyone just feels an incredible pull to come out here and try to do something, anything to help find anyone that might be left in this wreckage.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And how are these rescuers holding up themselves? This can be very emotional.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: It can be emotional. There are enormous false starts that happen all the time.

People get their hopes up, they hear a rumor, the crowd is suddenly silenced because they're told that there's a sound that's come out of one of the rubble piles, everyone gets silent immediately. It's an incredible sight to see, where hundreds of people who have been working in very chaotic circumstances get this upraised fist signal to be quiet, and they all do.

So, the fact is, though, most of the places we have been to, they have only been just that, false alarms. We haven't seen anyone come out of the wreckage alive in over a day.

One of the great disappointments here, of course, has been the news that the girl that was thought to be inside this collapsed school may have turned out to simply be just hope or a rumor or wishful thinking. There are recriminations now afterwards on social media. Everyone is now blaming one of the big television stations here for feeling like this story got hyped, and so there is a lot of disappointment there.

But, still, people are eager and hopeful that they still might find survivors somewhere in this country.

JUDY WOODRUFF: That's so tough.

And, William, is it your sense that the teams who are doing the rescuing have the supplies they need?

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: They absolutely do.

In fact, there is — again, characteristic of the response here in Mexico City, volunteers have been overwhelmingly donating food, water, medical supplies, masks, goggles. I mean, we have heard from several people that they don't need any more of that. They are more than well taken care of here.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, William Brangham reporting for us from Mexico City, where they're still dealing with this terrible earthquake, thank you, William.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: You're welcome, Judy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And just moments ago, Mexico's president confirmed that the death toll from the earthquake has now risen to 273.

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