MEXICO CITY — A sprawling earthquake recovery effort spanning several states turned intensely personal Thursday as rescue crews struggled to save a 12-year-old girl who was pinned in the rubble of her elementary school.
The drama played out live late Wednesday and Thursday on the major news channels here, with television cameras tracking every movement of the Mexican navy personnel and others who sought to rescue the girl now known as “Frida Sofia.” Under a soft rain, the work was delicate and painstaking, relying on thermal cameras and other technology to try to locate and remove young children trapped for more than 30 hours after their school collapsed Tuesday afternoon.
At one point Wednesday night in a drama that has riveted Mexicans, Televisa reporter Danielle Dithurbide learned from the navy admiral leading the recovery effort that Frida Sofia — which may not be her real name — was able to tell rescuers that five other students were possibly trapped with her. It was unclear whether they were alive.
In other rescue efforts underway simultaneously in different parts of Mexico City, at least three people were pulled alive from crushed buildings, bringing the total number saved to more than 50, President Enrique Peña Nieto said in an address to the nation Wednesday night.
“The priority continues to be saving lives,” he said.
As the official death toll from Tuesday’s 7.1-magnitude earthquake reached 250 people, with at least 115 in Mexico City and the rest in surrounding states, Mexicans confronted scenes out of parents’ worst nightmares, as rescuers pulled children’s bodies from the ruins of the primary school. Residents also learned about a baby’s baptism in central Mexico that ended with 11 family members dead, including the baby, when the church collapsed.
More than 2,000 people have been reported injured in the quake.
The search for the girl known as Frida Sofia became the top priority at the school and maybe for all of Mexico. Overnight and into Thursday morning, there remained confusion about how many children were inside with her and whether they were alive.
Rescuers trying to burrow into the debris realized that the girl was there when they spotted a protruding hand and asked her to wiggle her fingers as a sign of life, Televisa reported.
“There’s a girl alive in there,” Adm. José Luis Vergara told the network, “but we still don’t know how to get to her.”
The Mexican navy announced early Thursday that the body of a school worker was recovered, bringing the confirmed death toll at the school to 21 children and five adults. At least 11 other children have been rescued from the collapsed building.
Amid the scenes of devastation, a surge of civic spirit took hold as thousands volunteered to provide medical care, food and water or to pick through buildings destroyed by the quake, the second major temblor in the past month and the deadliest in three decades.
In Mexico City’s central Roma neighborhood, small stores stayed open around the clock, offering food to rescue workers and families of victims. A hardware store lent tools to people trying to claw through massive piles of debris. Signs on pay phones advertised free calls. On one quiet street in the Colonia del Valle neighborhood, a generator rumbled softly, with a paper taped to the wall next to it that read: “Neighbors, you can charge your phones here.”
“It’s a pleasure to help,” Rogelio Santos, a shopkeeper, said Wednesday. “We wouldn’t want to be anywhere else right now.”
In the capital, the powerful quake caused more than three dozen buildings to crumple and damaged hundreds more, a north-south band of destruction that scarred poor and wealthy neighborhoods alike.
“The priority continues to be rescuing people in collapsed structures and treating the wounded,” Peña Nieto wrote on Twitter on Wednesday as he assessed damage in Mexico City and surrounding areas. Peña Nieto declared a three-day period of national mourning, the second time the government has made such a declaration this month.
The Mexican leader spoke to President Trump on Wednesday about the quake. Trump extended his condolences and offered assistance and search-and-rescue teams, which were quickly deployed, according to a statement from the White House.
Trump has had a testy relationship with the Mexican government and was criticized for not quickly contacting Peña Nieto after a deadly quake off the Pacific coast earlier this month. (Trump blamed poor cellphone reception.)
The latest quake knocked out power across 40 percent of this city of 20 million, and rescue and medical services were stretched to their limits. Peña Nieto said Wednesday night that power had been restored to 95 percent of the population.
Authorities reported damage to at least 22 hospitals in and around Mexico City.
One, in Morelos, collapsed completely. Some 5,000 schools were damaged by the quake.
The partially destroyed Colegio Enrique Rebsamen, a private elementary school with about 400 students in southern Mexico City, quickly became a painful symbol of the tragedy. Mexicans anxiously watched on their televisions as dramatic rescue efforts continued through Tuesday night and into the next day.
On Thursday morning, the dozens if not hundreds of service members and rescue workers packed tightly inside the school’s courtyard watched the rescue effort as intensely as the millions of viewers glued to their television screens.
No one could say how far the teams might be from their goal of rescuing Frida Sofia or the other students who might be trapped in the rubble with her.
The three-story wing of the school that collapsed is now shaped like a dome, and rescue teams have opened small holes in the concrete layers, supported by wooden and metal beams. They have threaded microphones into the holes to try to pick up any sounds from Frida Sofia or the others.
After 10 a.m., several workers on the roof of the collapsed school began using powerful saws to cut out a portion. From the neighboring property, a large yellow crane swung over the courtyard, and cables were affixed to the roof segment, presumably to remove it.
The atmosphere inside was electric with tension, as workers approached the two-day mark in the hunt for survivors. Every few minutes, someone on a megaphone called for silence and dozens of people in the courtyard raised their fists. Then the generators were cut, while the workers hanging on the periphery of the precarious structure and inside it listened for sounds.
Despite the construction-site atmosphere, there were reminders that this was an elementary school. The medical tent with triage beds and several doctors in white lab coats was covered by a tarp strung up to the rim on the basketball court. The rescue teams, who have been working around the clock, occasionally rested on the seats of tiny children’s desks dragged into the courtyard. On the part of the school that remained standing, the red, white and green bunting from the celebration of Mexican independence day still hung from the balustrades.
At 10:45 a.m., the megaphone called for a meeting of team leaders on the roof on the far side of the courtyard, where navy officers and Education Secretary Aurelio Nuño were planning the rescue. After 15 minutes, the meeting ended. The leaders clapped and marched back downstairs to their posts.
“Let’s go!” one shouted.
After one wing of the school collapsed Tuesday afternoon — where the kindergarten and the younger grades held classes — hundreds of rescue workers descended on the scene, including police, soldiers and navy personnel.
By Wednesday morning, Lucia Arista already had visited what remained of the school. She had checked the dozens of names scrawled on paper taped up in the area that identified the survivors and deceased. She had visited eight hospitals in southern Mexico City in a desperate, predawn search for her niece.
She could discover no news, good or bad, about the fate of Jessica Laura Castrejon Hernandez, a 32-year-old cleaner who worked at the school.
“She has disappeared,” Arista said. The mingled emotions of anxiety, dread and hope were evident in the crowd gathered around the school.
“It’s like a sandwich now,” said Eduardo Corona, 55, a search-and-rescue volunteer who began working at the building Tuesday evening. “Many of those children, they didn’t make it.”
Corona saw the bodies of young children but said he could not hear sounds from survivors. Working to the rumble of generators, rescue teams used search dogs, mirrors, hoses and other methods to probe the wreckage for survivors.
Rescue worker Pedro Serrano described to the Associated Press how he tunneled into the unstable rubble to a partially collapsed classroom of the school, only to find no one alive.
“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,” he said.
Around the security cordon, neighbors strung up sheets of paper, taped between a tree and a crosswalk sign, with names of children who survived, suffered injuries or died.
There were 31 names on two lists of the dead. At least 59 other people were listed as having gone to hospitals in the area.
“We don’t know how many children are still inside,” said Elena Villaseñor, 44, a neighbor who was helping with the notices. “They were in classes. The school was full.”
A stream of parents, grandparents and other relatives checked for the names of family members.
“It is very hard to have to point them to these two lists,” Villaseñor said, motioning to the blue and white sheets with the names of the dead children. “There aren’t words.”
The Mexican military dispatched more than 4,000 service members to Mexico City and thousands more elsewhere to help with relief operations.
Several countries made plans to send assistance. At the Mexican government’s request, the U.S. Agency for International Development will deploy a team to conduct damage assessments and help local authorities coordinate their emergency efforts, American officials said. The team will include urban search-and-rescue specialists from the Los Angeles County Fire Department.
Ordinary Mexican residents also banded together to assist in the recovery effort in any way possible: distributing water, sandwiches, tamales and coffee.
Telecom companies enabled free text messaging and provided Internet service at points across the city. Private car services, as well as public buses and subways, offered free rides.
When the traffic lights went out in hard-hit Roma, several private security guards and one civilian in a T-shirt and jeans took it upon themselves to direct traffic.
Tuesday’s earthquake occurred exactly 32 years after Mexico’s worst earthquake, which left thousands dead in 1985 and demolished entire neighborhoods in the capital.
Mexico is particularly vulnerable to earthquakes: The country is in a region where tectonic plates butt up against one another, with huge amounts of energy waiting to be unleashed.
Gabriela Martinez and Paul Imison in Mexico City and William Branigin, Andrew deGrandpre and Abby Phillip in Washington contributed to this report.