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Wed 20 Sep 2017 08:40 AM

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Scramble for survivors as quake flattens Mexico City buildings

Quake ravaged the far-flung region of more than 20 million people

Scramble for survivors as quake flattens Mexico City buildings
Rescuers search for survivors buried under the rubble and debris of a building flattened by a 7.1-magnitude quake in Mexico City on September 19, 2017. The number of people killed in a devastating earthquake that struck Mexico City and nearby regions has risen to 138, the government said.

A 7.2 magnitude earthquake struck near Mexico City, killing scores throughout the region, reducing buildings to rubble and sending thousands fleeing in panic during the second temblor this month.

The quake ravaged the far-flung region of more than 20 million people, and images showed structures burning and exploding, some suddenly losing integrity and collapsing into billowing dust clouds. At least 248 people were confirmed dead, including 72 in Morelos, 117 in Mexico City and 43 in Puebla, National Civil Protection Coordinator Luis Felipe Puente said on Twitter early on Wednesday.

Tuesday’s quake struck 32 years to the day after a temblor with an 8.0 magnitude killed 5,000 people -- and hours after annual safety drills were held on the anniversary. The disaster temporarily closed the airport, stopped the metro and ended trading on the Mexican Stock Exchange. The exchange planned to open as normal Wednesday.

In Mexico City, smoke plumes rose near the financial thoroughfare of Paseo de La Reforma, which was flooded with people -- many wearing hard hats -- as buildings swayed. Fallen concrete and shattered glass littered the streets.

Hours later, as the shock wore off, rescue workers and volunteers worked frantically to save their neighbors. Military personnel and paramedics worked on the rooftop of a partially collapsed building in the Roma Norte district as a crowd of hundreds gathered in the street below. They burst into applause and cheers when an apparent survivor was pulled from the rooftop on the third floor.

At a seven-story residential building adjacent in the Condesa neighborhood, a rescue party entered after a volunteer shouted that an elderly woman was trapped inside more than two hours after the quake. Balconies on the top floors of the building were partially collapsed. Police and ambulances zoomed by as bystanders covered their faces to dull the scent of gas that filled the air.

At the Instituto Renacimiento, a crenelated Catholic school, a massive turret had plummeted to earth, ripping apart a wrought-iron fence and destroying a Porsche. Alarms didn’t ring until after the ground stopped shaking, but all the children were evacuated safely, said Javier Osorio, a rescue worker.

At the nearby Hospital Obregon, about 45 patients were taken outdoors, some with babies and some attached to intravenous drips. Workers tied sheets to trees to shade them.

At least 27 buildings in Mexico City collapsed, President Enrique Pena Nieto told Televisa news. He was returning to Mexico City from Oaxaca to take charge of the crisis, but couldn’t land in the city due to damage, according to Televisa news. He was to survey the city from the air, hold a coordination meeting and address the nation in the evening.

“The priority is to help victims that have been affected, and rescue those that are trapped in buildings,” he said.

Worried that the quake could add to the economy’s woes, investors sold Mexican assets, with the iShares MSCI Mexico Capped ETF dropping 0.6 percent in afternoon trading in New York. The Mexico peso fell to a session low of 17.84 to the dollar.

Power Outages

Electricity demand plunged in the eastern and central regions of Mexico’s power grid as the earthquake knocked out power to homes and businesses. Jaime Hernandez, director general of the country’s state-owned utility, said on Twitter that 3.8 million customers were without power following the earthquake. Pemex, the state oil company, said it had activated its security protocol. 

Mexico is one of the world’s most quake-prone nations, sitting at the intersection of four major crustal plates, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

“This is a highly active zone of seismicity, so it’s not something that’s unusual for this region,” said Julie Dutton, a geophysicist at the agency.

The epicenter of Tuesday’s temblor was in Puebla, about 115 kilometers southeast of the capital, Dutton said. On Sept. 7, a temblor hit offshore near Chiapas state with a magnitude of 8.2, according to the Geological Survey and Mexico’s National Seismological Service. Tuesday’s quake was much nearer to the capital.

Luther Beatriz Ramirez, a government employee, said she was working when her building began to shake. She ran, leaving behind her keys and wallet in an office suddenly littered with ceiling tiles and dirt.

“This was so much worse than the one a few weeks ago,” Ramirez said.