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Thoughts of Suicide--and Expressions of Faith : Again and Again, Survivors Cheat Death

September 25, 1985|MARITA HERNANDEZ and MARJORIE MILLER | Times Staff Writers

MEXICO CITY — Often during the 94 hours that he was buried under twisted steel and concrete, Juan Jose Hernandez Cruz considered suicide.

The 23-year-old medical intern was separated from a patient, one of his own, by a cement post in the collapsed Benito Juarez Hospital. In the blackness, they could not see, nor in the rubble move. But they could talk and try to comfort each other.

"We said that we had to have faith in God, that it wouldn't be long before they would rescue us," Hernandez said.

His story and dozens of others tell of successful races against time.

Rescuers still worked feverishly Tuesday to find survivors from Mexico City's earthquakes. But as the rescue efforts moved toward their seventh day, the odds of finding other survivors continued to fade.

Health authorities estimated that healthy adults might survive without water or food as long as eight days. Chances of survival for children and the elderly were judged even slimmer.

Hernandez lost track of time during the four days he was trapped. At first, when all he heard were the screams of others, he thought perhaps the whole city had fallen.

"I thought many times about suicide, but I didn't have anything to kill myself with," he said.

All Hernandez could find was a plastic glass, which he used to drink his urine, and a bar of soap, which he held up to his nose to mask the smell of death.

He reclined on top of a mangled hospital bed that lay atop a corpse. He occasionally slept, only to awaken to his nightmare.

Hernandez did not know exactly how long he had been buried when he heard the faint sounds of machinery excavating the debris. He and his patient partner screamed for help along with others beneath the fallen hospital. Several times the mechanical commotion seemed to approach nearer, then faded away.

"We said we would drink some beers together when we got out," Hernandez said. "He had a scalpel and was going to kill himself, but we gave each other strength."

Hernandez thought about his mother, wondered if she were alive and what it would be like to see her again.

"Everything was focused toward getting out," he said.

Ninety-four hours later, he was pulled through a narrow tunnel of debris into the light.

"It felt like I was coming out of my mother's womb, like I was just being born, but with all of the awareness of an adult," Hernandez said. "It was fantastic."

After Hernandez was rescued, the debris shifted, and his patient died.

Defying the odds, 2-week-old infants were pulled out of the rubble at Benito Juarez Hospital on Tuesday morning--five days after the earth shook hundreds of buildings to the ground. They were both alive.

"They had to be a day old, two at most, when the earthquake hit," said a doctor at the Spanish Hospital, where they were taken.

A newborn baby can go 30 hours without food and 48 hours without water, but after that they must be given liquids, he said.

"I don't know how they made it, except that there are miracles," the doctor said.

The chore now is to find out who the infants are: Their name tags were lost in the debris.

Moans and cries filled the darkness where Leon Esquivel Rejas, 20, lay trapped for 2 1/2 days.

"Who's there?" he yelled into the void. And several of his classmates responded, calling out their names to one another.

Esquivel, who lay on his side, felt the weight of another body across his feet. To his right, he felt a foot that did not respond to his touch. And, on his left, he felt a warm liquid dripping onto his arm.

He followed the liquid trail with his hand, across chunks of concrete and twisted metal, until he reached the source.

"It was blood pouring out of someone's arm," he said. "I could feel the pulse was still strong. By the softness of the skin, I could tell it was a woman."

He took a shoelace from the protruding foot. And, grabbing the string between his teeth, he managed to tie the lace with his free hand around the woman's bleeding arm.

'Let's Stay Calm'

Despite his effort to stop the bleeding, when Esquivel checked again, the pulse had stopped.

"Let's stay calm. They will come to rescue us," Esquivel and his friends counseled each other across the darkness.

But before help arrived, Esquivel and his friends--buried beneath a collapsed seven-story building where they had attended classes--would become familiar with the stench of rotting flesh.

They passed the time making plans for trips they would take together to the resort city of Acapulco and the parties they would hold when the nightmare was over.

"We never lost faith," Esquivel said. "We were always fighting. Our only thought was survival."

Outside, meanwhile, in a scene that was repeated throughout the city, rescue teams, fire crews, soldiers and volunteers worked day and night carefully digging small tunnels through the thick rubble.

300 Students Buried

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