Across central Mexico, rescue workers including soldiers and volunteers worked late into the night Tuesday to free the living who were still trapped in the rubble of collapsed buildings following Mexico's deadliest earthquake in more than 30 years.
The death toll from the 7.1 magnitude quake – which bizarrely occurred on the anniversary of a 1985 quake that left 5,000 dead – has climbed to 248, with more than half of those deaths occurring in the Mexican capital city. It also comes two weeks after another powerful quake left nearly 100 dead in Mexico City. The quake was unusually close to Mexico City, located just 60 miles south of the capital in Chiautla de Tapia, a small town in neighboring Puebla state, according to Mexico’s seismological service.
More are feared dead, including possibly dozens of teachers and schoolchildren feared buried in the rubble of a Mexico City school, one of hundreds of buildings that was destroyed by the quake, according to Reuters.
Additionally, several buildings collapsed in the chic neighborhoods of Roma and Condesa in central Mexico City, where many foreigners live. In Condesa, rescue workers scrambled to find eight to 10 people believed trapped under the debris of a building that collapsed near Mexico Park, one of the city’s most famous parks. Hundreds of volunteers formed a human chain to help clear rubble and bring food and water to rescue workers.
Mexico was also hit earlier this month by Hurricane Katia, which killed two. Even the Popocatépetl volcano southeast of the city sent a large cloud of ash into the sky on Tuesday. “This is too much. It’s like we’re cursed or something,” said Marcos Santamaría, a 62-year-old retiree.
Philippines and the United Nations have offered to support the recovery effort. At least 30 second-grade students are still missing, along with eight adults.
Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto said in a video message released late Tuesday that the initial focus of rescue efforts must be to find people trapped in wrecked buildings, according to the Associated Press.
"The priority at this moment is to keep rescuing people who are still trapped and to give medical attention to the injured people."
Pena Nieto added that, as of late Tuesday, 40% of Mexico City and 60% of Morelos state had no electricity.
Dust-covered and exhausted from digging, 30-year-old Carlos Mendoza said two people were pulled alive from the ruins of a collapsed apartment building in the Roma Sur neighborhood during a three-hour period.
"When we saw this, we came to help," he said, gesturing at the destruction. "This is ugly, very ugly."
In Condesa, rescue workers scrambled to find eight to 10 people believed trapped under the debris of a building that collapsed near Mexico Park, one of the city’s most famous parks. Hundreds of volunteers formed a human chain to help clear rubble and bring food and water to rescue workers, according to the Wall Street Journal.
Gabriela Magaña, who works in a nearby art gallery, was inside the building when the quake hit. She managed to make it to the street just before it fell.
“I just saw an immense black cloud of dust and heard a big bang. Then I started to hear crying, and the smell of gas was unbearable. It was a nightmare,” she said.
At least 86 dead had been counted in Mexico City and 71 in Morelos state, which is just south of the capital. Another 43 were known dead in Puebla state, where the quake was centered. Twelve deaths were listed in the State of Mexico, which surrounds Mexico City on three sides, four in Guerrero state and one in Oaxaca, according to the official Twitter feed of civil defense agency head Luis Felipe Puente.
Mexico City residents rallied and joined the rescue efforts to free their neighbors following the quake. Mexico City Mayor Miguel Angel Mancera said buildings fell at 44 sites in the capital alone as high-rises across the city swayed and twisted and hundreds of thousands of people, fearing for their lives, ran into the streets. Buildings also collapsed in Morelos state, including the town hall and local church in Jojutla near the quake's epicenter. A dozen people died in Jojutla. The quake also ruptured gas mains and sparked fires across the city and other towns in central Mexico as falling rubble and billboards crushed cars.
Mexico’s Popocatepetl volcano, visible from the capital on a clear day, had a small eruption. On its slopes, a church in Atzitzihuacan collapsed during mass, killing 15 people, Puebla Governor Jose Antonio Gali said, according to Reuters.
Meanwhile, Mexico City residents slept in the streets while authorities and volunteers set up tented collection centers to distribute food and water. The city’s metro area has a population of some 20 million. Federal authorities ordered schools in seven states, as well as Mexico City, closed until further notice. Patients were evacuated from many hospitals.
Hours after the quake, residents were still huddled on the streets, too afraid to go back inside. Along the boulevard Paseo de la Reforma, a strong smell of gas caused panic.
President Donald Trump, who had been criticized for taking days to contact Mexican Mr. Peña Nieto after the quake earlier this month, was quick to offer support. “God bless the people of Mexico City. We are with you and will be there for you,” Trump tweeted Tuesday afternoon.