MEXICO CITY—Gustavo López recognized the boy’s clothes first. His tiny frame, pulled from the wreckage, lay over the jagged pieces of what remained of the school. It was his 7-year-old son.
He sat in shock for hours, quietly trying to maintain strength for his 9-year-old daughter, who had escaped the school unharmed. He wondered how to tell her that her younger brother, also named Gustavo, was dead—one of at least 30 children who perished at the Enrique Rebsámen school after it collapsed in the earthquake that devastated Mexico on Tuesday, killing at least 230 people.
López waited there for his cousin, Mauricio, who loved the boy and often took him on bike rides and to the movies. By the time Mauricio arrived a few hours later, hundreds of medical personnel, rescuers, volunteers and families were racing around, trying to unearth students still buried in the rubble.
“He was my son, too,” Mauricio screamed when he heard the news, collapsing onto the upturned earth as López tried to console him. “I can’t bear this. I can’t!”
Such screams of anguish rose above the clamor at the school overnight, markers of loss in the chaotic crowd. Parents climbed trees and playground equipment to get a better vantage of the rescue effort, clinging to the hope that their children would emerge unscathed.
Many did, having rushed out before tumbling walls could trap them. Passers-by had also raced to the school immediately after the quake to pluck students from the cavities and openings of the buckled structure.
But as the day and night wore on, mostly lifeless bodies were pulled from the wreckage, their names recorded by an army of volunteers keeping lists of the dead. By Wednesday night, five people were known to still be missing, including one student who officials said was alive but trapped as rescuers tried frantically to reach her. Hope was dwindling that any more children would be found alive.
“To see a parent carry their own dead baby is something I will never forget,” said Elena Villaseñor, a volunteer whose own home was badly damaged.
She held a sheaf of papers with the names of children on them, written large enough for parents to see them from a distance.
Her own daughter was safe, she said, having been at a different school that did not collapse. But she could not sit idle while others suffered, and so she raced to this school to help however she could.
The death toll across the country—in Morelos, Mexico state, Puebla and Mexico City—climbed to at least 230 people. The number was expected to rise even higher, as the rescue efforts slowly transitioned into recovery efforts, and more of the missing were marked as dead.
Watching that number climb, hour by hour across the city and the broader earthquake zone, was a nation already in mourning. Two weeks earlier, the largest earthquake in a century hit Mexico, killing at least 90 people in the south of the country and offering a grim foreshadowing of the hardship still to come from this one.
Perhaps, nowhere was the suffering more concentrated than at the collapsed school. The smell of gas, sweat and earth filled the air overnight as people yelled their messages into megaphones. At first, the lights from police cars and emergency vehicles lit the rescue. Later, a generator was brought to the scene to power floodlights.
Of the 400 students who attend the school, it was unclear exactly how many were there or how many made it out of the building when the earthquake struck on Tuesday afternoon. The injured, more than 60 of them, were sent to area hospitals, while traumatized parents whisked others to safety.
At least three parents at the site of Enrique Rebsámen, a Mexico City private school, had been communicating with their children trapped inside. They managed to reach them through the messaging service WhatsApp, begging their children to give them details, like how far from the main door they were when the building collapsed, to help the search efforts.
One of the many volunteers, seated at a makeshift desk on Tuesday night, helped keep a list of the injured and the dead; it included at least five adults.
Residents donned red vests and formed human chains to remove the chunks of concrete from the school’s broken edifice. Giant piles of water, medicine, blankets and even baby formula hugged the periphery, brought by neighbors who carted it in by the armful. The solidarity in the aftermath of the quake has been repeated at collapsed buildings across Mexico, a quiet but resolute determination to help. Strangers spending hours clearing debris, medics and construction workers plunging into the bowels of broken buildings, students and even children bringing water and food.
At the school, the blitz of activity continued all night and into morning. Someone yelled for medicine: “We need clonazepam, insulin, anesthetics, antihistamines and oxygen tanks.” Workers wore helmets and masks. Bulldozers and excavation machines went in and out of the disaster site.
Everyone found something to do, passing water, coffee or medicine to those who needed it. Volunteers called for baby bottles to feed the children still trapped in the wreckage.
Every so often, amid the piercing noise of raised voices, grumbling machinery and the whine of ambulances, a volunteer’s arm would rise and others would follow.
An odd silence would settle over the gathered. A name would be called.
“Sara Ledesma! Where are her parents?” a paramedic screamed. No one appeared, and the masses voiced her name in somber chorus.
Her parents were nowhere to be found.
In the frantic confusion of the rescue operation, the crosscurrents of hundreds of well-meaning personnel sometimes led to frightening miscommunication.
After toiling for hours sifting through the rubble, Florentino Rodríguez García was given a sudden ray of hope: His 9-year-old grandson, José Eduardo Huerta Rodríguez, was supposedly fine.
A medic told him that the boy had been taken to a hospital for injuries. But after hours of hunting, Rodríguez could find no trace of the boy.
He headed back to the school and was approached by a nurse this time. She took him by the hand. She told him the medic had been mistaken. José, she said, was still trapped inside.
“Please don’t tell me that,” Rodríguez screamed, collapsing into hysterics. “They told me he was out! This can’t be true!”
“We just celebrated his birthday this past Sunday,” he told the woman, who listened quietly. “He is such a smart little boy!”
He melted back into the crowd of anguished parents congregated outside of the school— and waited.
And then, an hour later, an arm was raised, followed by others. Silence.
“José Eduardo Huerta Rodríguez,” the crowd began to chant.
The boy had been pulled out. He was still alive, a rescue worker said.
But several hours later, a family member emailed to say that in the chaos, the rescuer had been mistaken. José Eduardo, the relative said, had died before his body was recovered.
Image credits: AP/Marco Ugarte