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Macabre, Frustrating Task : Anguished Families Seek Relatives Among the Dead

September 23, 1985|MARJORIE MILLER | Times Staff Writer

MEXICO CITY — Arturo Mejia Garcia walked slowly through the Social Security baseball stadium, searching the distorted blue faces of cadavers for his younger brother.

It was Mejia's third macabre journey in as many days through the makeshift morgue, and once again it was futile.

"His name doesn't appear on any list," Mejia said. His brother's remains could not be found in any of the hospitals or morgues.

Antonio Mejia Garcia, 29, a journalist and father of two from the state of Oaxaca, was staying at the downtown Regis Hotel, which collapsed during Thursday's earthquake and exploded into gas-ignited flames.

For three days, work crews have been digging bodies out of the debris, but none of them, apparently, has been Antonio's.

"We've been to about 30 places to look for him, some of them two or three times," Mejia said. "We haven't found him alive or dead."

Mejia's task was repeated in morgues and hospitals throughout the capital this weekend as families searched for their missing relatives. Wearing surgical masks against disease and the stench of death, relatives picked through plastic bags and the mounds of ice used to preserve the bodies when the formaldehyde ran out. If they found someone, they signed legal identification forms and reclaimed their dead.

Mejia's dark eyes were swollen with exhaustion. He said 25 members of his family have divided into groups to carry out the frustrating hunt. They have examined and re-examined lists in newspapers, on the walls of private and public hospitals, in city borough halls.

They have stood vigil outside the ruined hotel, where cranes are clearing debris in a cloud of dust. They have collected rumors and tidbits of information and pursued them until they disintegrated into falsehoods.

Like so many relatives of the missing, Mejia has tried to reconstruct his brother's course before the quake. He knows Antonio's room was on the fifth floor of the eight-story hotel, and he knows Antonio was not scheduled to attend a journalism class until 10 a.m.

"Surely he was still asleep" when the quake struck at 7:18 a.m., Mejia said.

He has tried to confirm his assumption with Antonio's colleagues who also were in the hotel, but those who survived the disaster quickly fled the capital for their homes in the provinces, and Mejia has not been able to reach them.

Unidentified Males in 30s

Mejia said he watches the list for unidentified males in their 30s. He tries to follow up on all the bodies retrieved from the Regis Hotel. But the excavation is slow and the distribution of information often disorganized.

" . . . They give us information, and sometimes it's false," he said. "It's the same in other places. Last night, a watchman told us three cadavers from the hotel had been taken to a delegacion (police precinct) . We went to the delegacion, and they told us it wasn't true.

"This morning some people who were looking for their son told us two cadavers from the hotel had been brought here, but they aren't here. We don't know if they were taken away or what," Mejia said.

"Another time we wanted to see a cadaver that corresponded to the age of my brother, but when we got there, they had already buried the bodies in a common grave."

Photographs, Fingerprints

Officials have taken photographs and fingerprints of bodies that were buried before being identified, but Mejia, a doctor, said he was not shown any.

"It's difficult enough to identify a cadaver after several days," he said. "Can you imagine trying to identify a photograph of a cadaver?"

Mejia and his cousin, Leopoldo Sanchez, walked slowly out of the stadium past throngs coming in for the same gruesome chore.

Trucks laden with ice drove past them and past stacks of simple wooden caskets. Posted signs offered telephone numbers for psychological counseling and free government funerals.

Mejia said that he would meet the rest of his family and that they would split up for the day's search. He seemed to believe it was in vain.

"Most likely he has already been buried in a common grave, or he is still in the debris," Mejia said.

Other families refused to give up hope.

Frustration and Relief

Olga Irma Castellanos and her mother walked arm in arm out of the stadium, crying in frustration and relief. They had not found Castellanos' husband, Eliseo Rios, among the bodies. Rios, a public relations student, was buried in the collapsed National College of Professional Students and has not been found.

From the stadium, Castellanos, 27, returned to the site of the school where, three hours earlier, rescue workers had pulled three more people out of the rubble alive.

"One man wasn't hurt at all," she said. "He was walking. But he didn't want to come out. He had been there for so long he was panicked."

She took deep breaths to stay awake and keep from crying. She clearly hoped that her husband, too, would walk out of the rubble.

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