An IDF emergency team from the Home Front Command arrived Thursday in Mexico, where they will begin providing assistance after the Central American nation was hit by a powerful earthquake that has killed at least 245 people.
The death toll rose after Mexico City Mayor Miguel Angel Mancera said the number of confirmed dead in the capital had risen from 100 to 115. An earlier federal government statement had put the overall toll at 230, including 100 deaths in Mexico City.
On Thursday, Mexican teams were still working frantically to rescue people trapped under several buildings that collapsed. Some of the IDF team would be helping with search and rescue operations, the army said.
The Israeli delegation was made up of 71 soldiers and officers who had already begun providing assistance, an army spokesperson said, but could not yet provide details on their activities.
Walla news reported that two rescue teams were at work looking for survivors in collapsed buildings.
Earlier, the army said that apart from a small search and rescue team, the delegation was made up mostly of engineers who will help assess the structural integrity of buildings in Mexico City and other affected areas. There is no field hospital, however the army has said this could be added in the future.
Late Tuesday night, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office said Mexico had asked Israel for aid after Netanyahu offered help.
“Netanyahu ordered that aid and a search and rescue operation be organized to leave to Mexico as soon as possible,” his office said.
The delegation is slated to return on September 29, ahead of the Yom Kippur holiday, the spokesperson said. The IDF chief rabbi granted the delegation special dispensation to travel, as the team was in the air during the Jewish Rosh Hashanah holiday, when such activities are generally avoided under religious law.
The head of the delegation is Col. Dudi Mizrahi, the commander of the army’s search and rescue unit, despite the fact that most of the troops will be engineers.
“They will help surveying buildings — which structures can people go into, which structures need to be torn down,” the IDF spokesperson said.
Most of the soldiers in the team are reservists.
The IDF is often one of the first countries to send humanitarian delegations to countries hit by natural disasters.
Israeli disaster relief delegations provided rescue and medical services after an earthquake in Turkey in 1999, an earthquake in Haiti in 2010, a typhoon in the Philippines in 2013 and, most recently, an earthquake in Nepal in 2015.
Last year, the United Nations’ World Health Organization identified Israel as having the world’s top emergency medical team.
In Mexico, attention was focused on the rescue operation at the Enrique Rebsamen school, where at least 21 children and four adults perished in Tuesday’s quake, that was seen as emblematic of Mexicans’ rush to save survivors before time runs out.
Helmeted workers spotted the girl buried in the debris early Wednesday and shouted to her to move her hand if she could hear. She did, and a rescue dog was sent inside to confirm she was alive. One rescuer told local media he had talked to the girl, who said her name was Frida.
Hours later the crews were still laboring to free her as images of the rescue effort were broadcast on TV screens nationwide. Workers in neon vests and helmets used ropes, pry-bars and other tools, frequently calling on the anxious parents and others gathered around to be silent while they listened for any other voices from beneath the school.
At one point, the workers lowered a sensitive microphone inside the rubble to scan for any noise or movement. A rescuer said they thought they had located someone, but it wasn’t clear who.
“It would appear they are continuing to find children,” said Carlos Licona, a burly sledge-hammer wielding volunteer who came to help in any way he could. Asked if that made him optimistic, he said, “I hope so.”
But by late Wednesday night, workers had not been able to get to her, although workers found four corpses in the rubble, volunteer rescue worker Hector Mendez said. Mendez said cameras lowered into the rubble suggested there might be four people still inside, but it wasn’t clear if anyone beside the girl was alive.
It was part of similar efforts at the scenes of dozens of collapsed buildings, where firefighters, police, soldiers and civilians wore themselves out hammering, shoveling, pushing and pulling debris aside to try to reach the living and the dead.
By mid-afternoon, 52 people had been pulled out alive since Tuesday’s magnitude 7.1 quake, Mexico City’s Social Development Department said, adding in a tweet: “We won’t stop.” Among them were 11 people rescued at the Enrique Rebsamen school, where three people remained missing, two children and an adult. Earlier, journalists saw rescuers pull two small bodies from the rubble, covered in sheets.
A helicopter overflight of some of the worst-hit buildings revealed the extent of the damage wrought by the quake: three mid-rise apartment buildings on the same street pancaked and toppled in one Mexico City neighborhood; dozens of streets in the town of Jojutla, in Morelos state, where nearly every home was flattened or severely damaged and a ruined church where 12 people died inside.
In addition to the deaths in Mexico City, the federal civil defense agency reported 69 dead in Morelos state just south of the capital and 43 in Puebla state to the southeast, where the quake was centered. The rest were in Mexico State, which borders Mexico City on three sides, Guerrero and Oaxaca states.
President Enrique Pena Nieto declared three days of national mourning even as authorities made rescuing the trapped and treating the wounded their priority. “Every minute counts to save lives,” Pena Nieto tweeted.