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EARTHQUAKES IN MEXICO : Faith, Prayer Sustain Mother, Trapped 2 1/2 Days Before Rescue

September 23, 1985|LOUIS SAHAGUN | Times Staff Writer

MEXICO CITY — "For water, I cried and drank my tears," said Maria Concepcion Carmen Salinas, who was entombed for 2 1/2 days under tons of shattered concrete and splintered wooden beams.

Throughout the ordeal, Salinas, a secretary in a government office downtown, passed the time whimpering, drifting in and out of consciousness and praying.

Her last concern, before a major earthquake struck Mexico City last Thursday morning, was getting herself and her husband, Francisco Ibanez, 37, an engineer, off to work and their 1-year-old daughter to a day-care center. While she was buried in the rubble of their five-story apartment building in the Colonia Roma neighborhood, all that became a distant memory.

It already seemed that weeks had passed, she said, when a second quake Friday night dropped more stones upon her and the roof of the small cavern in which she was trapped fell another foot. A rock struck her head, and blood dripped down her face and tattered nightgown.

Suddenly, she said, "I saw a light--it was the Virgin Mary. I asked her if I would live to see my daughter again, and she smiled."

Sitting in her bed Sunday in the emergency ward of the Mexican Red Cross headquarters, Salinas asked, "Do you believe in God? I do."

Salinas was one of the hundreds of victims of the two Mexican quakes for whom death seemed certain until rescue workers tunneled into piles of debris and pulled them out.

There were more such stories told here Sunday as the frantic digging continued and rescue workers were occasionally rewarded by finding someone alive.

A baby boy who had just been born when the first quake brought the floors of the Gynecological Obstetrical Hospital crashing down on the delivery room was rescued late Saturday. By chance, a steel beam over the baby's incubator fell at an angle, protecting him from the crush of collapsed concrete. The quake struck so soon after the child's birth that he was not even wearing an identification bracelet; his parents are unknown.

The baby's discovery buoyed hopes of rescue workers that they might find more survivors in the crumpled remains of the maternity hospital, part of a large government medical complex. Authorities said they believe that 80 women, 115 babies and an undetermined number of staff members were trapped in the building when the first quake hit.

As giant cranes lifted huge slabs of concrete from the hospital ruins, a 183-member rescue team from France worked side by side with Mexican volunteers, all aided by 16 German shepherds trained to hunt for humans.

Olex, one of the dogs, barked occasionally as he was led through the rubble by his trainer, indicating that either a survivor or a corpse was nearby. Sensitive acoustical equipment also picked up a sound.

But the dogs' trainers did not want to build false hopes. "A young dog does not always know the difference between a live human and a cadaver," one said. Working throughout Sunday, the rescuers found only corpses.

Like others here, Salinas' brush with death began at 7:18 a.m. Thursday.

She was preparing breakfast in the small apartment where she lived with her husband and daughter. The windows began to rattle.

"My husband grabbed my daughter from the table and began to run for the stairs," she said. All three reached the bottom floor at nearly the same time.

Her husband, with their daughter in his arms, ran through the door and into the sunlight when the roof caved in. His wife didn't make it.

"I only had 10 meters (about 35 feet) to go," she said. "Then I was covered with sharp rocks and called out for help, but no one could hear my voice."

For what seemed an interminable period of time, she prayed and cried in the silence and darkness.

"I had no hunger except to see my daughter," she said, tears streaming down her face as she recalled the hours under the rubble.

Shortly after the second quake struck, Salinas said, "I prayed to the Virgin Mary to give me a sign, and she came to me in splendor.

"She smiled at me, and I said, 'Thank you, Virgin.' I knew I was going to live."

Unknown to Salinas, her husband and rescue workers up above were frantically chipping away at the concrete and pulling away metal strips and wooden debris.

At 7:30 p.m. Saturday, they got through.

"My husband called my name, and I answered, 'I'm alive.' "

Her husband's hands reached down into the hole and pulled her to safety. Moments later, she was in a speeding ambulance. Her husband dampened her soiled mouth with a sponge.

Salinas did not know if any of the other 15 families who lived in their complex escaped. Their neighborhood, Colonia Roma, was one of the areas hardest hit by the quakes.

"I'm sorry for the thousands who died," she said. "But I am grateful that God gave me another chance to live and be happy."

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