MEXICO CITY — Police, firefighters and ordinary Mexicans, some using only bare hands, worked through the night in a desperate bid to find survivors among flattened homes, offices, apartment buildings and schools leveled by a powerful earthquake that killed at least 217 people.
The magnitude-7.1 earthquake rocked the capital and surrounding area Tuesday, 32 years to the day after a major quake devastated the capital city in 1985.
The earthquake was the second to strike in 12 days. The earlier temblor hit southern Mexico, shaking the capital. Mexico's civil defense chief lowered the death toll to 217 from 248 early Wednesday.
Luis Felipe Puente, head of Mexico’s national Civil Defense Agency, tweeted that at least 86 people died in Mexico City, 71 in Morelos state, 43 in Puebla, 12 in the State of Mexico, four in Guerrero and one in Oaxaca.
Still, rescuers feared the toll would rise as they searched for possible survivors in the rubble of collapsed buildings.
At the site of one school, Escuela Enrique Rebsamen, in Mexico City, teams used whatever means available — including bare hands — to claw through the rubble.
With barely room to move, in an intensely claustrophobic situation, Pedro Serrano, 29, a doctor, managed to make it into a collapsed classroom only to find all occupants dead.
“We dug holes, then crawled in on our bellies,” Serrano told the Associated Press.
“We managed to get into a collapsed classroom. We saw some chairs and wooden tables. The next thing we saw was a leg, and then we started to move rubble and we found a girl and two adults — a woman and a man.”
Asked if there was hope of finding anyone alive, Serrano looked weary but said workers were still trying despite the danger.
“We can hear small noises, but we don’t know if they’re coming from above or below, from the walls above (crumbling), or someone below calling for help.”
The federal Education Department said 25 bodies were recovered from the school, all but four of them children. According to Animal Politico, at least 30 children and eight adults are still missing. Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto visited the school Tuesday.
Four people were killed and 40 injured at the Tecnológico de Monterrey campus in Mexico City — part of a chain of private universities that educates the children of many of the country's elites. The newspaper El Heraldo de México reports six people were missing.
Schools were closed in the city Wednesday, but the capital's massive subway system and network of buses were scheduled to operate normally. The Mexico City government opened 14 shelters for those whose homes were damaged.
As the quake hit Tuesday, residents throughout the city spilled out of buildings, with many staying huddled in the streets until authorities inspected their buildings. Sirens blared throughout the afternoon. Federal police brought 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 killed an estimated 9,500 people, destroyed about 100,000 homes and reduced parts of the city to rubble. 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.
“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 than 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 earlier Sept. 7 earthquake, which killed at least 90 after hitting several states along Mexico's Pacific Coast, 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 time. The quake's epicenter was near the town of Raboso, about 76 miles southeast of Mexico City, the U.S. Geological Survey said.
“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 ironically on the same day when Mexican civil protection officials conduct earthquake drills — and office workers, students and apartment dwellers practice abandoning their buildings. A drill occurred barely two hours before the Tuesday quake hit. Mayor Miguel Angel Mancera said buildings fell at 44 places in the capital alone.
Peña Nieto tweeted 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. 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.
President Trump, whose promise to build a border wall separating the USA and Mexico has antagonized Mexicans, on Tuesday tweeted: "God bless the people of Mexico City. We are with you and will be there for you."
In a statement, State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert offered condolences "to any who were injured or lost loved ones."
"Our thoughts and prayers are with the people of Mexico affected by today’s 7.1-magnitude earthquake and other recent natural disasters. We stand ready to provide assistance should our neighbors request our help," she added.
Nauert said the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City stands ready to provide consular assistance to any U.S. citizens affected by the earthquake.
On Mexico City’s main boulevard, thousands of people streamed out of buildings into the streets in a panic, filling the plaza around the Independence Monument with a mass of people.
Traffic came to a standstill, as masses of workers blocked streets. Clouds of dust rose from fallen pieces of facades. In one short video posted to Twitter, bystanders watched as a five-story apartment building buckled and crumbled to the street in a shower of dust and debris.
In the city’s Roma neighborhood, hit hard by the 1985 quake, small piles of stucco and brick fallen from building facades littered the streets. Two men calmed a woman, blood trickling from a small wound on her knee, seated on a stool in the street, telling her to breathe deeply.
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 1985 earthquake 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.
The scene recalled the rescue efforts after the 1985 earthquake, when the government response was slow and residents were forced to fend for themselves. Teams formed to dig through rubble — which at the time included hospitals, apartments and hotels. Then-president Miguel de la Madrid dithered and even rejected foreign assistance when first offered.
Gala Dluzhynska was taking a class with 11 other women on the second floor of a building in the Roma neighborhood when the structure collapsed. Dluzhynska said the building’s stairway was very tight and surrounded with glass. As they ran out of the building, everything started falling around them. Some people panicked, she said. Dluzhynska said she fell in the stairway and others began to walk over her.
She shouted for help and someone pulled her to her feet. She said the dust was so thick you couldn’t see anything.
“There weren’t any stairs anymore only rocks,” she said.
She said they were still looking for one missing classmate.
Stanglin reported from McLean, Va. Contributing: Amanda Trejos, The Associated Press. Follow David Agren on Twitter: @el_reportero.