Mexican authorities on Friday extended a search for survivors of this week’s devastating earthquake that killed nearly 300 people, with foreign rescue teams helping as the window for finding anybody left alive was about to close.
That 72-hour-mark beyond which hope is all but extinguished was to expire later Friday, three days after Tuesday’s 7.1 earthquake toppled dozens of buildings in Mexico City and nearby central states.
Anguished families watching and waiting at buildings that collapsed with their loved ones inside pleaded with authorities not to send in bulldozers while there is still hope people could be alive — something the government vowed not to do.
“We know she’s alive and we’re not leaving until she leaves with us,” said Olinca Gonzalez, 29, whose father’s wife worked in a Mexico City building that was flattened by the quake.
Families were circulating fliers demanding “No heavy machinery.”
President Enrique Pena Nieto promised authorities were not giving up the search.
Although experts say the average survival time in such disasters is three days, depending on injuries, trapped survivors have been known to hang on for many days more. That was the case after a massive earthquake that devastated Mexico City in 1985, killing more than 10,000 people.
The 72-hour period will be up at 1:14 pm (1814 GMT) Friday.
“The rescue and support effort in the buildings that collapsed is still on,” Pena Nieto said during a visit to the state of Puebla, where the epicenter was.
“We are not suspending it. We have to keep up the rescue effort to keep finding survivors in the rubble.”
‘Keep the faith’
Authorities put the death toll from Tuesday’s quake at 286 people, but it was expected to rise further with scores still missing in Mexico City.
Volunteer rescuers working through their third straight night fought off growing fatigue to remove tons of rubble.
In the capital’s central neighborhood of Roma, rescue workers scrambled to locate up to 23 people believed to be in the wreckage of a collapsed seven-story office building.
They had pulled 28 survivors from the mountain of rubble in two days. But on Friday, despair was setting in.
“Since yesterday, they haven’t pulled anyone out,” wailed Xochitl Gonzalez, 39, cousin of one of those trapped. “We don’t believe them anymore. There are people decomposing in there.”
Anxious relatives kept vigil, their faces pallid. Some averted their gaze from the rubble. Tents set up for them were unslept in.
“Keep the faith,” a Spanish rescue worker urged the families waiting at the site.
A female firefighter, Teresa Ramirez, cousin of an accountant in the collapsed Roma building, railed against what she said was a “lack of machinery, lack of professionalism” at the site.
“But thank God international experts have now arrived,” she said. “We are up against the clock. The 72 hours that are the ‘golden hours’ are almost up.”
Several countries, including the US, Israel, Panama and EU states had sent crews to help.
A Japanese emergency team was using a hi-tech scanner on the toppled building in the Roma district.
Jose Gutierrez, father of one of those trapped, and also a civil engineer helping with the rescue, warned that “the structure is at risk of total collapse.”
Overnight rain had caused saturated debris to shift, he explained.
In the south of Mexico City, at a flattened school where 19 children died, relatives and neighbors laid white wreaths Thursday, hugging each other in tears.
“Sad, painful. In these moments, you can’t put into words what you’re feeling after the loss of a loved one,” said Miguel Angel Ortiz, whose niece was killed.
Stories of hope
Some stories of hope continued to emerge from the ruins into late Thursday.
In the north of the city, a man who had been trapped for 26 hours and a 90-year-old woman were pulled alive from the rubble.
As rescuers race against the clock to find survivors, others wondered where they will live after the quake damaged thousands of homes.
“I’m waiting for the civil protection service to tell me if we can go home or not,” said street vendor Erika Albarran, who has been staying with her family in a shelter for people with no place to go.
Her family has only 100 pesos ($5.50) among them and she doesn’t know how they will manage once assistance such as food, shelter and baby supplies runs out.
“We don’t have cash. We’re living day to day,” she said.
Tuesday’s tragedy struck just two hours after Mexico held a national earthquake drill — as it does every year on the anniversary of the 1985 quake.