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Desperate parents, missing children at quake-hit Mexico City school
By Yemeli ORTEGA
Mexico City (AFP) Sept 20, 2017

Volunteers rush to rescue in aftermath of Mexico quake
Mexico City (AFP) Sept 21, 2017 - Climbing onto a pile of rubble that used to be a building may not seem the most obvious thing to do for someone who has just survived an earthquake.

But that is how thousands of Mexicans have reacted to the deadly 7.1-magnitude quake that rocked the country Tuesday, killing more than 200 people.

Businessmen in ties, students in jeans, doctors in scrubs and other ordinary people from all walks of life have joined professional rescue teams in rushing onto and into the mangled remains of homes, schools and offices in Mexico City, desperately trying to reach survivors before it's too late.

The outpouring of sympathy has been overwhelming -- too much for the authorities to deal with at times.

Volunteer rescuers are now being turned away at many sites if they do not bring their own helmets. And appeals have gone out for residents of the capital to stop giving perishable food items and water, which have already been donated in abundance.

"Food is going to waste, we don't need any more water. We have a list of medicines and supplies that we need instead," a soldier at one site said through a megaphone in Mexico City's upscale Condesa neighborhood.

Mexico's impressive tradition of citizen solidarity can be traced back to September 19, 1985 -- 32 years to the day before Tuesday's quake -- when another massive earthquake devastated the capital, killing more than 10,000 people.

The government was so overwhelmed by the magnitude of the disaster that citizens took matters into their own hands, organizing teams of diggers, tunnelers, rubble removers, supply managers and the like.

That same determination to band together to dig through the rubble and pull survivors from the wreckage was visible across Mexico City after Tuesday's quake.

- Anonymous heroes -

At a collapsed primary school on the capital's south side, where 21 children were killed and several others are believed to be trapped alive, an untrained civilian volunteer took on a starring role in a rescue operation that was being watched around the world.

The slight man was able to squeeze into a narrow channel through the rubble to reach a little girl and pass her water.

His exploits recalled those of the "Moles," teams of slender men who crawled through the wreckage in 1985 looking for survivors. They were so successful they were later deployed to various disaster sites around the world.

Thousands of civilians flooded the scene of the collapsed school, forming human chains to remove rubble under the supervision of the navy.

Others handed out food and water to volunteers. A nearby restaurant had closed its doors but was giving away free food.

One family expressed its moral support by holding up large signs reading "Thank you for your help."

Around the city, cries of joy went up every time workers pulled another survivor from the ruins. More than 50 have been rescued so far, according to President Enrique Pena Nieto.

- Then and now -

The 1985 disaster proved to be an earthquake in Mexican politics and society, as well.

It spelled the beginning of the end for one-party rule by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), the all-powerful party that had governed Mexico since 1929.

Communications networks collapsed, and then president Miguel de la Madrid was nowhere to be seen as devastated residents were left to their own devices in the aftermath of the quake.

It was a wake-up call for a newly organized, newly critical civil society, and also paved the way for an overhaul of the country's disaster preparedness and response systems.

In 2017, communications networks buckled after the quake but didn't break.

The messaging service WhatsApp proved to be a vital means of communication.

Adriana Fargo nervously bites her lip as she waits for news on the fate of her seven-year-old daughter, feared buried in the earthquake-hit remains of a Mexico City elementary and middle school.

At least 21 children died when a three story wing of the Enrique Rebsamen school collapsed after a 7.1 magnitude quake struck Mexico on Tuesday.

Thirty children are missing, and some could still be alive.

"No one can possibly imagine the pain I'm in right now," said Fargo, wrapped in a blanket as she sat with other anguished parents Wednesday in an improvised shelter near the school.

What is the girl's name? Fargo's fists tighten and she stares at the ground, unable to pronounce her daughter's name. Her lips strain as she holds back what appears to be a mournful wail of pain.

After sunrise there was a glimmer of hope amid the torture of uncertainty: rescuers confirmed that they located a girl alive and trapped in the rubble.

There was a call for absolute silence as the rescuers slid a themal scanner down a narrow crack where they had made contact with the child.

"We are very, very close to people who could be alive. We're working with thermal cameras and canine units," said volunteer rescuer Pamela Diaz, a bread baker by profession.

"We keep moments of absolute silence to listen for survivors. They tend to cry out or bang on walls," she told AFP by telephone.

Another rescuer, 42 year-old Flor Gonzalez, gave a grim description her experience.

"Last night I counted five cadavers that were removed from the school," said Gonzalez, a dentist who spent the night volunteering at the school.

"I saw when they notified one of the parents . ... it was devastating," she said, as tears swelled in her eyes.

A third rescuer, speaking on condition of anonymity, earlier told AFP that there were signs of even more survivors -- possibly 20 children trapped inside a classroom with a teacher.

He said there also appeared to be nine lifeless bodies in the debris.

Up to now, 11 children and at least one teacher were pulled alive from the rubble.

However, rescuers also pulled out 26 lifeless bodies -- all but five of them children, said rescue coordinator Jose Luis Vergara.

President Enrique Pena Nieto, who rushed to the site late Tuesday, warned that the death toll could rise.

At least 217 people were reported killed by the earthquake.

- Picks, shovels and hands -

Fargo's husband joined the hundreds of soldiers, firefighters and rescuers clawing away at the debris since the quake struck.

Armed with picks, shovels and even their bare hands, the crew worked through the night in their desperate search for survivors.

"Silence, please!" a police officer barked through a megaphone. "Don't walk, don't breathe, we're trying to hear voices!" Any sign of life from under the rubble was welcome.

A stream of volunteers, many with lamps attached to their helmets, carried long wooden beams to prop up building sections that were in danger of collapsing.

Other volunteers formed a human chain to hand baskets of bottled water to the rescuers. The baskets then returned filled with debris.

Maria del Pilar Marti, a teacher who works at the Enrique Rebsamen school, said that many children stayed in the building when the quake hit.

"We had to take cover in our classrooms until the quake ended," she told Televisa news. "Then we were covered in a cloud of dust when part of the building totally collapsed."

Tuesday's earthquake struck as the country was recovering from an 8.2 magnitude quake that hit on September 7 in southern Mexico, killing around 100 people and destroying homes.

In the aftermath Mexican authorities said they had inspected the country's schools, and verified that the structures were quake resistant.

The earthquake also hit on the anniversary of a massive 1985 quake that killed more than 10,000 people, an event that still haunts a country that has seen its share of disasters.

- 'It's chaos' -

Power outages, intermittent cell phone coverage and roads closed due to debris complicate the rescue.

In front of the school, two people sat at a table with a computer at an informal control center, keeping track of the children and teachers who died, those who were rescued and those still missing.

"It's chaos ... there are children that escaped the school but were injured, and are alone in hospitals without their parents," one of the people keeping track of the victims told AFP, speaking on condition of anonymity.

"Meanwhile here at school there are desperate parents that can't find their children."

British Virgin Islands under curfew as new storm approaches
London (AFP) Sept 19, 2017
The British Virgin Islands was under curfew Tuesday as the Caribbean archipelago, still reeling from the devastation caused by Hurricane Irma earlier this month, braced for another megastorm. "While Hurricane Maria may not be as strong as Hurricane Irma, our present reality is also very different," Orlando Smith, the premier of the self-governing British territory, warned in a statement. ... read more

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