Israeli rescuers were taking part in the search for survivors in Mexico this weekend following a devastating earthquake Tuesday that has killed nearly 300 people and destroyed dozens of buildings.
A 71-member Israeli delegation from the Home Front Command arrived in Mexico on Thursday, some 48 hours after the 7.1-magnitude quake hit. Two Israeli aid organizations — IsraAID and iAid — also said they were sending delegations to help with the search and rescue efforts.
Anxiety was mounting on Friday as Mexico approached the crucial 72-hour mark after the powerful tremor and exhausted rescuers raced to locate possible survivors trapped in the rubble.
Authorities put the death toll from Tuesday’s quake at 286 people, but it was expected to rise further with scores still missing in Mexico City.
The Israeli military said Tuesday that the 71-member delegation was made up of a small search and rescue team, with a majority being engineers who would help assess the structural integrity of buildings in Mexico City and other affected areas.
Locals rescuers said the Israeli teams came with equipment enabling them to detect cell phone signals in the rubble.
Israel did not set up a field hospital yet, but the army has said this could be added in the future.
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.
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.
Families in waiting
Anguished families watching and waiting at buildings that collapsed with their loved ones inside pleaded with authorities not to send in the bulldozers while there is still hope people could be alive inside — something the government vowed not to do.
“We know she’s alive and we’re not leaving until she leaves with us,” said Olinca Gonzalez, 29, whose father’s wife worked in a Mexico City building that was flattened in the quake.
Families were already circulating fliers reading, “No heavy machinery.”
President Enrique Pena Nieto promised authorities were not giving up the search.
Experts say the average survival time in such disasters is 72 hours, depending on injuries. But trapped survivors have been known to hang on for many days more, including after a massive earthquake that devastated Mexico City in 1985, killing more than 10,000 people.
The 72-hour period will be up at 1:14 pm (1814 GMT) Friday.
“The rescue and support effort in the buildings that collapsed is still on,” Pena Nieto said during a visit to the state of Puebla, where the epicenter was.
“We are not suspending it. We have to keep up the rescue effort to keep finding survivors in the rubble.”
Volunteer rescuers working through their third straight night fought off growing fatigue to remove tons of rubble at dozens of flattened buildings in the capital and across several central states.
In the capital’s central neighborhood of Roma, rescue workers scrambled to locate 23 people believed to be in the wreckage of a collapsed seven-story office building.
They have already pulled 28 survivors from the mountain of rubble.
Aaron Flores’s sister Karen and friend Paulino Estrada were both trapped inside.
Estrada managed to contact his family by cellphone, even making a video call. But there has been no news from Karen Flores.
“We’re feeling disoriented and desperate because we haven’t heard anything from her,” said her brother, 30.
At other locations, hope turned to grief.
“At 1:00 pm they pulled my mother’s body out of the debris, but identified her under a different name, and it wasn’t until 5:00 pm that they gave us the bad news,” said Maria Dolores Martinez, 38, at a Mexico City morgue.
But real stories of hope continued to emerge from the ruins.
In the north of the city, a man who had been trapped for 26 hours and a 90-year-old woman were pulled alive from the rubble.
Rescue teams have flown in from the US, Israel, Japan, Spain and numerous Latin American countries.
As rescuers race against the clock to find survivors, others wondered where they will live after the quake damaged an estimated 20,000 homes.
“I’m waiting for the civil protection service to tell me if we can go home or not,” said street vendor Erika Albarran, who has been staying with her family in a shelter for people with no place to go.
Her family has only 100 pesos ($5.50) among them and she doesn’t know how they will manage once assistance such as food, shelter and baby supplies runs out.
“We don’t have cash. We’re living day-to-day,” she said.
Tuesday’s tragedy struck just two hours after Mexico held a national earthquake drill — as it does every year on the anniversary of the 1985 quake.