The Search for Mexico's Earthquake Survivors Enters a Fourth Day

Updated: Sep 22, 2017 11:23 AM ET

(MEXICO CITY) — Survivors are still being pulled from rubble in Mexico City as rescue operations stretch into a fourth day Friday, spurring hope among desperate relatives gathered at the sites of buildings collapsed by a magnitude 7.1 earthquake.

Mexico's federal police said several people were lifted out of the debris of two buildings Thursday. Rescuers removed or broke through slabs until they found cracks that allowed workers to wiggle through to reach the victims, then lift them to safety. The city government said 60 people in all had been rescued since the quake hit at midday Tuesday.

Still, with the hours passing, fewer of the living were being found, and the official death toll rose to 286, with more than half, 148, in the capital. National Civil Defense chief Luis Felipe Puente tweeted early Friday that there were also 73 deaths in the state of Morelos, 45 in Puebla, 13 in Mexico, six in Guerrero and one in Oaxaca.

The time was nearing when rescuers would be replaced by bulldozers to clear rubble, but officials went to great pains to say it was still a rescue operation.

Puente acknowledged that backhoes and bulldozers were starting to clear away some wrecked buildings where no one had been detected or where teetering piles of rubble threatened to collapse on neighboring structures.

"It is false that we are demolishing structures where there could be survivors," Puente said. "The rescue operations will continue, and they won't stop."

Those who witnessed the buildings collapse said the tragedy could have been much worse. Some buildings didn't fall immediately, giving people time to escape, and some shattered but left airspaces where occupants survived.

In other cases, the salvation seemed almost miraculous.

Security guard Felix Giral Barron said that after the quake started, he had time to run and tell people to evacuate his building. Then an entire apartment building across the street crumbled and a big tank of heating gas on its slid off, but didn't explode.

What was not miraculous was the disappearance of one of the most dearly held hopes, the belief that a small girl trapped in a collapsed school had been contacted by rescuers.

Since early Wednesday, the nation's attention had been glued to the search for her in the rubble of the school in southern Mexico City. Rescuers told reporters that a girl, identified only as Frida Sofia, had signaled she was alive deep in the rubble by wiggling her fingers. Rescuers said they even spoke with her.

The child became a symbol of hope, but no family members came forward to identify the girl, and officials said no girl by that name was registered at the school.

On Thursday afternoon, navy Assistant Secretary Enrique Sarmiento announced that while there were blood traces and other signs suggesting someone could be alive beneath the school, all its children had 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.

He said 11 children had been rescued and 19 had died, along with six adults, including a school employee whose body was recovered just before dawn Thursday.

"We want to emphasize that we have no knowledge about the report that emerged with the name of a girl," Sarmiento added. "We do not believe — we are sure — it was not a reality."

In fact, he said, the only trace rescuers had were images from a camera lowered into the rubble that showed blood tracks where an injured person apparently dragged himself or herself.

Sarmiento said the only person still listed as missing was a school employee. But it was just blood tracks — no fingers wiggling, no voice, no name. Several dead people have been removed from the rubble, and it could have been their fingers rescuers thought they saw move.

Sarmiento later apologized for being so categorical, saying if anyone was still trapped could be a child or an adult.

"The information existing at this moment doesn't allow us to say if it is an adult or a child," Sarmiento said. "As long as there is the slightest possibility of someone alive, we will continue search with the same energy."

Alfredo Padilla, a volunteer rescuer at the school, played down the importance of the revelation that there was no trapped child.

"It was a confusion," Padilla said. "The important thing is there are signs of life and we are working on that."

And hope burned on.

At the site of a quake-collapsed seven-story building in Mexico City's Roma Norte neighborhood, rescue efforts were suspended overnight as rain drenched the area and destabilized the pile of rubble.

Workers were eager to restart Friday morning under overcast but dry conditions — as soon as experts could confirm it was safe to do so.

Jose Gutierrez, a relative of someone believed to be in the wreckage of the building and also a civil engineer, gathered other families of the missing amid an ad-hoc campsite of tents, tarps and plastic chairs to let them know what was going on. A list of 46 names of missing people was attached to a nearby lamppost.

"My family is there. I want them to get out," Gutierrez said, his voice breaking with emotion. "So ... we go onward."

Rescuers from countries including the United States, Israel, Japan and Panama were at the site.

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