After Devastating Earthquake, Crews Race to Save Girl Trapped in School Rubble in Mexico City

A woman reacts as the search for survivors in a school where at least 21 children died and 30 were missing continued in Mexico City on Sept. 20, 2017. (Credit: OMAR TORRES/AFP/Getty Images)

A woman reacts as the search for survivors in a school where at least 21 children died and 30 were missing continued in Mexico City on Sept. 20, 2017. (Credit: OMAR TORRES/AFP/Getty Images)

Rescuers are centimeters away from reaching a 12-year-old girl trapped beneath the debris of a collapsed elementary school in Mexico.

The sound of metal and concrete cracking punctuates the near silence at Colegio Enrique Rebsamen, one of several structures that crumbled in Tuesday’s earthquake in Central Mexico.

The magnitude-7.1 quake turned dozens of buildings in central Mexico into dust and debris, killing at least 230 people.

As rescuers clawed through the debris looking for survivors early Thursday morning, volunteers brought water and food amid the chaos. Soldiers, rescuers and medics didn’t stop working despite the rain and the risk of the building’s further collapse.

The search for survivors at the school intensified Wednesday afternoon when rescuers made contact with the 12-year-old girl and when temperature readings suggested that two others might be alive inside, CNN affiliate Foro TV reported.

Shortly after a cloud of dust flew up prompting rescuers to briefly stop operations, rescuer Alberto Salinas made a public plea on TV for beams, pulleys and other materials to shore up the structure.

“This is the spirit of us, of Mexico,” volunteer Ivan Ramos of Mexico City said Wednesday night. “That’s our community in general; it crosses classes — if you are rich or poor — and any other divide.”

‘I thought someone was kicking my chair’
The elementary school was one of 16 schools in Mexico City to suffer serious damage in Tuesday’s 7.1-magnitude earthquake. The tremblor caused part of the private elementary school to fold in on itself, sandwiching and collapsing classroom onto classroom.

At least 25 people — 21 children and four adults — were confirmed dead at the school, Luis Felipe Puente of the Ministry of the Interior’s Civil Protection unit said Wednesday. As of Wednesday afternoon, three people were still missing there and 11 people had been rescued.

Foro TV interviewed two girls who said they were taking down their English homework as the building began to shake.

“I thought someone was kicking my chair, but I turned around and no one was kicking me,” one girl told the station.

“The English teacher said there was a quake. Our teacher took us to the stairs and that’s when part of the building started to come down. There was dust everywhere. We couldn’t see.”

‘We’re just trying to help’
Members of the Mexican navy and marines, the Red Cross and the rescue team Los Topos joined the second day of recovery efforts on Wednesday, which drew volunteers from across the region.

Luisa, a 16-year-old volunteer, had been at the site since Tuesday. On her way to deliver sweets to rescuers she stopped to describe the grim scene.

“It’s horrible. We saw a lot of children dead on the floor. Their moms crying,” she said, shaking her head.

A photo from the Mexican National Defense Secretary show workers trying to save a little girl from the rubble of an elementary school in Mexico City on Sept. 20, 2017.

A photo from the Mexican National Defense Secretary show workers trying to save a little girl from the rubble of an elementary school in Mexico City on Sept. 20, 2017.

The crews removed bricks and pieces of concrete by hand and used thermal, sound and movement sensors to aid their search, according to CNN affiliate Foro TV. Throughout the day, they held up their fists and gestured for silence so they could listen for signs of life, extending a veil of calm over an otherwise chaotic scene.

A member of Los Topos told Foro TV he crawled into openings within the ruins over pieces of broken chairs and splintered walls.

Another member of the rescue group told Foro TV her small size made it easier for her to move through the rubble. She said she helped remove debris to create openings for cameras and sensors to move around.

“We’re just trying to help,” she told Foro TV. “Any parent, anyone with a child, would do the same.”

Signs of life
By late afternoon, activity grew frenetic. Heavy machinery cleared away excess debris and brought in more to fortify collapsing areas of the buildings.

Ambulances and military vehicles filled the streets. Medical personnel and men with shovels streamed into the secure area.

Rescuers said they found two temperature readings of vital organs that were confirmed by a doctor with federal police.

“That person should be alive,” another rescuer told Foro TV.

“It’s definitely a body with life,” said another. “There was some movement of the fingers.”

Yet the weight of the lives lost weighed heavily on some volunteers, including Ivan Ramos. He has a son of his own who survived the earthquake.

“This is a tragedy,” he said. “It’s kids. It will take a long time to heal.”