Nearly a week on, clock ticking for IDF rescuers to find survivors in Mexico

Colonel in delegation lauds ‘record’ speed with which members set off; says nobody pulled alive from wreckage, but there’s still hope

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

For the past four days, an Israeli military delegation has worked around the clock in rescue operations in Mexico City after a massive earthquake rocked the country last Tuesday, killing over 300 people, according to one of the senior IDF officers on the trip.

The Israeli delegation was one of the first foreign groups to arrive in Mexico City, touching down on Thursday morning. The Mexican government, which had requested Israeli assistance, specified two areas in which it needed help: search and rescue operations alongside local authorities, and mapping of the city’s buildings to determine which were structurally sound and which would need to be demolished.

The delegation is made up of 71 soldiers, mostly reservists, from the army’s Home Front Command. Approximately half were engineers, while the rest came from search and rescue, logistics and medical units. It is led by Col. Dudi Mizrachi.

Speaking to The Times of Israel on the phone from Mexico, Col. (res.) Gili Shenhar said the delegation reached Mexico in “record time,” arriving in the country less than 48 hours after the initial earthquake.

Col. (res.) Gili Shenhar, left, and Col. Dudi Mizrahi speak to a soldier from the IDF Home Front Command during a search and rescue operation in Mexico on September 24, 2017, after the country was struck by an earthquake. (Israel Defense Forces)

The delegation is scheduled to return on Friday, but that may change depending on the situation in Mexico City and how much the IDF soldiers and their Mexican counterparts are able to accomplish before then.

The search and rescue operation is focused on two structures, one of them a six-story building in which dozens of people are believed to be trapped.

The soldiers are using both hand and power tools to get through the layers of rubble that was once a building.

“The clock is ticking,” Shenhar said.

The colonel said he and the other soldiers “have hope in our hearts” that survivors will be found. However, so far, the IDF has yet to pull a live body out of the wreckage.

IDF soldiers search for survivors in a building that collapsed during an earthquake that struck Mexico on September 24, 2017. (Israel Defense Forces)

Since the magnitude 7.1 earthquake struck Mexico, the country has been struck by at least two more tremors, one on Saturday and another on Sunday.

Shenhar said he didn’t notice Sunday’s initial magnitude 5.9 quake, but he did feel the aftershocks. As a result of the tremors, search and rescue work was temporarily halted, the army said.

The IDF delegation will focus only on Mexico City, a sprawling “mega city” home to some 9 million people, with a total of 21 million living in the metropolitan area, Shenhar said.

The Mexican capital was one of the areas hit hardest by Tuesday’s earthquake, but the IDF colonel said most of the city is largely “up and running” as of Sunday. Electricity, water, public transportation services have returned to most of the city, and the international airport also reopened.

But while the city is coming back to life after the quake, more work still has to be done to help the people trapped under the rubble and those who “no longer have a roof over their head,” he said.

IDF soldiers search for survivors in a building that collapsed during an earthquake that struck Mexico on September 24, 2017. (Israel Defense Forces)

Shenhar, who lives in the Israeli city of Modiin-Reut, has worked in the field of disaster relief for decades, first in the IDF, then with the United Nations. Now he studies the issue academically for Tel Aviv University.

While the search-and-rescue operation is perhaps the more eye-catching aspect of the delegation’s mission, its primary mission is to help local officials assess the structural integrity of Mexico City’s buildings.

Most of the city’s structures were unharmed, but others will need reconstructive work to make them safe again and a smaller number will need to be torn down entirely and rebuilt, Shenhar said.

An IDF soldier surveys the damage done to a building by an earthquake that struck Mexico on September 24, 2017. (Israel Defense Forces)

In its efforts to map and assess approximately 1,000 buildings in Mexico City, the soldiers are using a new app that was created by the Home Front Command and which was hastily translated into Spanish, Shenhar said.

The computer program allows engineers to enter relevant data on the structural integrity of the buildings and then stores that information in a format that is easily accessible and shareable with other teams.

“All this data is saved in one place so you can get a more complete picture,” he said.

This is its first operational experience.

Shenhar described the “record” speed with which the military was able to put together the delegation as impressive.

“Organizing the delegation required calling up many reservists, getting them to show up, getting together the equipment, filling the planes, getting the necessary immunizations, doing all the preparations and coordinating it all,” he said.

IDF soldiers search for survivors in a building that collapsed during an earthquake that struck Mexico on September 24, 2017. (Israel Defense Forces)

The decision to send the soldiers was made on Tuesday night, and the team set out on Wednesday afternoon, stopping for a layover in Portugal.

The soldiers set out on the eve of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year and one of most important holidays for Jews, when many Israelis ordinarily get together with friends and family for festive meals.

But not so for the 71 members of the IDF delegation to Mexico.

“We abandoned our families for the holiday,” Shenhar said.

“When I got the message to leave, I threw in the last things I needed in the suitcase that I always have ready to go, gave my wife a kiss and ran out in my uniform. The gardener who works for us didn’t believe that someone would leave on the eve of the holiday, without even knowing when he’d be back.”

However, Shenhar said, this was a sacrifice he and the others were willing to make.

“There’s no second-guessing. When there’s an event, we run to help, to contribute. Helping injured people is the highest value for us,” he said.

It warms the heart to see how residents are embracing [us]. It’s extraordinary

Shenhar said the response from locals has been overwhelming. Videos from Mexico City showed residents applauding members of the IDF delegation as they walked down the street.

“We walk down the street, and people applaud us. It’s embarrassing. We just came to help,” he said.

But the colonel said that incident showed only a fraction of the support he and the other Home Front Command soldiers have received.

“People come up to us and say ‘Shana tova'” — happy new year, in Hebrew — “or ‘shalom.’ It warms the heart to see how residents are embracing [us]. It’s extraordinary,” Shenhar said.

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