One week on, jittery Mexico far from coming to grips with quake

Joshua Howat Berger, Agence France-Presse

Posted at Sep 27 2017 03:04 AM

Mexican police officers stand near a collapsed multi-family residential building, after an earthquake in Mexico City on Monday. Jose Luis Gonzalez, Reuters

A week after an earthquake that killed more than 300 people, a shaken Mexico was torn Tuesday between trying to get back to normal and keeping up an increasingly hopeless search for survivors.

After a week of eerie quiet in Mexico City, the capital's notorious traffic jams were visible again as the sprawling city of 20 million people began returning to work and school.

"If the sun is still rising, life goes on, and we have to go on too. Broken by loss and fear, but we have to keep going anyway," Carlos Ontiveros, a 42-year-old architect, told AFP on his way to work.

The city center was a bizarre mix of shops and restaurants going about business as usual, alongside collapsed and damaged buildings cordoned off by barriers and yellow tape.

Outside some afflicted buildings, people gathered waiting for authorities to tell them when they could go back in to get the things they left behind last Tuesday at 1:14 pm.

- September 19 -

In a nasty twist of fate, the 7.1-magnitude earthquake struck on the anniversary of a 1985 quake that killed more than 10,000 people, the worst in the country's history.

Improbably, it hit just two hours after an annual earthquake drill, turning Mexico City's most seismically unstable neighborhoods into something out of a post-apocalyptic movie.

In the trendy Roma neighborhood, shell-shocked and sobbing residents rushed into the street, disoriented and desperate for news of their loved ones -- impossible to get in the early minutes, with cell phone networks saturated.

Slowly, a picture of the destruction began to emerge: 39 buildings crumbled to the ground across the capital, trapping hundreds of people inside. Scores more were killed in the states of Morelos, Puebla, Mexico, Guerrero and Oaxaca.

Just as in 1985, thousands of volunteer rescuers sprang into action, scrambling onto the mountains of mangled steel and concrete to dig through the rubble with their bare hands in a desperate search for survivors.

Rescue teams from across Mexico and around the world soon joined them.

Across the city, 69 people were pulled alive from the wreckage in the first days.

But since late Friday, only bodies have been recovered.

Now the delicate question facing the nation is how long to keep up the search.

- 'Our patience is over' -

Rescue workers have now wrapped up their efforts at all but a few sites in Mexico City, and the chances of pulling more survivors from the rubble are dim.

Emergency teams from Japan, El Salvador, Honduras and Panama have wrapped up their work and headed home.

The government faced protests Monday night by seething relatives of those still inside the biggest search site, a seven-story office building in the hard-hit Roma neighborhood.

Family members threatened to burst through security barriers and take to the rubble themselves if the authorities did not release more information on the operations inside.

"We acted for seven days and seven nights peacefully, waiting for results. Our patience is over.... Please update the lists" of bodies recovered, said one relative, Ines Sandoval.

- Corruption -

In a country with a long history of mistrusting official versions of events, the authorities' communications shortfalls have been widely criticized.

Allegations of negligent construction and oversight have also started to fly.

Local media reports said that the most-watched collapse site -- a school where 19 children were killed last week -- was built illegally on land reserved for housing.

Mexico City's mayor, the education minister and the top official for the district all traded blame after the reports emerged.

Education Minister Aurelio Nuno said he had ordered an investigation.

Mexico is particularly earthquake-prone, sitting atop five tectonic plates.

An aftershock from the September 7 quake that shook Mexico City on Saturday has made the country all the more jittery.

Many people are still on edge and suffering from post-traumatic stress, said psychologist Raquel Gonzalez, part of a team offering free counseling sessions in a park at the heart of the disaster zone.

"The people who come feel like the ground is still moving. They're very afraid," she told AFP.

The latest death toll stands at 333 people -- 194 of them in Mexico City.