Major earthquake shakes Mexico City; more than 200 people dead

People remove debris of a damaged building after a real quake rattled Mexico City on September 19, 2017 while an earthquake drill was being held in the capital. A powerful earthquake shook Mexico City on Tuesday, causing panic among the megalopolis' 20 million inhabitants on the 32nd anniversary of a devastating 1985 quake. The US Geological Survey put the quake's magnitude at 7.1 while Mexico's Seismological Institute said it measured 6.8 on its scale. The institute said the quake's epicenter was seven kilometers west of Chiautla de Tapia, in the neighboring state of Puebla. / AFP PHOTO / Alfredo ESTRELLA (Photo credit should read ALFREDO ESTRELLA/AFP/Getty Images)
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The death toll in the devastating earthquake that struck Mexico City and surrounding areas three days ago rose to at least 273, as the search for survivors continued Friday.

President Enrique Pena Nieto said 137 of the deaths occurred in Mexico City. He said he believed people could still be trapped alive in a number of buildings following Tuesday's magnitude-7.1 quake.

The body of a female teacher was found overnight in the Enrique Rébsamen school in Mexico City, according to media reports. Reports that a girl was found alive in the rubble turned out to be incorrect, even though a Navy commander told cable channel El Financiero that rescuers had been in contact with her.

Many in Mexico became fixed on the alleged girl, Frida Sofía, believed to be 12 years old, who was reported to have been in contact with classmates and was taking shelter under a heavy table. 

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Broadcaster Televisa reported the girl was not named “Frida” and all the students with that name at the Enrique Rébsamen school were accounted for.

"We have done a count with the school authorities and we are sure that all the children, either tragically, died, or are in hospital, or safe at home," said Angel Enrique Sarmiento, of the Mexican Navy.

Teams pulled 11 survivors from the rubble of the school. Nineteen children and six adults are thought to have died there.

On Tuesday when the earthquake shook the city, residents spilled out of buildings — many stayed in the streets until authorities inspected their buildings. Sirens blared throughout the afternoon. Federal Police were spotted bringing in sniffer dogs to find victims.

Many of those in the streets said the force of the quake was as strong as the 1985 earthquake, which claimed thousands of lives, left many more homeless and reduced parts of the city to rubble. 

“This was the same as 1985. It shook bad,” said Gustavo de la Cruz, a parking lot attendant. He spotted a light fixture falling from a pole, but said the damage appeared a less severe as the last time. “That 1985 earthquake wrecked Mexico City,” he said.Others saw the damage first-hand. “There was this explosion,” said Ubaldo Juárez, a barber, who was riding his bike through the trendy, but hard-hit Condesa neighborhood. “I saw this cloud of dust, like something out of a movie.”

The Sept. 7 earthquake triggered an alarm system in Mexico City — quakes often occur far from the capital, which offers a window of 45 seconds to one minute to evacuate buildings. That didn’t occur this this time.

“Normally you have a warning. But this just struck,” said Juárez, who got down on his hands and knees to brace himself. 

The earthquake came on the same day as the 1985 earthquake. It’s a day when Mexican civil protection officials conduct earthquake drills — and office workers, students and apartment dwellers practice abandoning their buildings. 

An earthquake drill occurred barely two hours before the Tuesday earthquake hit.

The 1985 quake killed an estimated 9,500 people and destroyed about 100,000 homes. That quake, a stronger magnitude-8.1, was only one of several over the past few decades to hit Mexico, one of the most seismically active regions in the world.

President Enrique Peña Nieto tweeted that he was on a flight to Oaxaca when the quake struck, but he returned immediately to Mexico City, where the international airport suspended operations as personnel checked structures for damage.

Throughout the city, rescue workers and residents dug through the rubble of collapsed buildings seeking survivors, AP reported. At one site in the city's Roma neighborhood, rescue workers cheered as they brought a woman alive from what remained of a toppled building. After cheering, the workers immediately called for quiet again so they could listen for the sound of survivors under the rubble.

The quake's epicenter was near the town of Raboso, about 76 miles southeast of Mexico City, the U.S. Geological Survey said.

The quake came just 12 days after a magnitude-8.2 quake struck several states along Mexico's Pacific Coast, leaving at least 90 dead.

Araceli Torres, a skin care product distributor, was at Mexico City's Centro Santa Fe shopping center when the earthquake struck. Having lived through the 1985 earthquake, Torres instantly recalled the terrifying feeling she experienced 32 years ago.

"Suddenly everything started shaking," Torres, 54, said. "I think that those who lived through the earthquake back in '85 experienced a psychosis because it started out really hard. ... I felt as if my heart was going to jump out of my chest."

Torres walked toward a roofless parking lot near the mall and said she had never seen so many people there before. People looked nervous — some were crying and some even asked for her phone because no one else had signal.

"This is very painful because it reminds you of what the experience was like back in '85," she said. "Back then it looked as if we had been in a city that had just been bombarded. You could breath a lot of sadness today."

Though the earthquake of '85 was substantially more destructive and damaging, Torres said she can still see the same kind of solidarity among people: Neighbors or simply people on the street helping others stay calm.

Residents in the Col. Condesa neighborhood and across the city came armed with buckets to help with rescue efforts — many were still wearing their work clothes and arrived straight from the office. 

"The boss sent everyone home. I came to help," said Gonzalo Hernandez, a lawyer still wearing a white dress shirt. "Everyone is asking, 'How can I help out?'"

Volunteers formed long rows to pass buckets full of rubble from a collapsed building. Others brought sandwiches and oranges to feed the volunteers. Urgent calls went out for portable lights to allow rescuers to work and doctors to attend to the injured. Power had been restored in some parts of the city, but the most impacted areas were still in the dark.

Contributing: CHRISTOPHER SHERMAN, MARIA VERZA and CHRISTINE ARMARIO, AP.