MEXICO CITY — The 8-day-old Hernandez Sandoval baby slept peacefully Thursday, belying all she has endured in her young life.
The day after her birth, the hospital where she was born, Benito Juarez, was shaken into a heap of rubble during Mexico City's Sept. 19 earthquake. The baby had not yet been given a first name, and the identification bracelet she wore listed only her father's surname, Hernandez, and her mother's, Sandoval.
Rescuers said the mother was believed to have died, but there were reports that the father may have survived.
Somehow, the baby was spared when the roof fell in, the concrete floors collapsed and medical equipment and machinery crumpled all around her. For six days, she went without everything a baby is supposed to have: warmth, nutrition and loving care. Yet, she held on long enough for rescue workers to carry her from the debris Wednesday.
"It's the biggest miracle since the (1969) Mets," dead-panned Lt. Col. Rolando Cuevas, head of pediatric surgery at the Military Hospital here, where Baby Hernandez Sandoval is being treated and appears to be in good health.
That she and at least 40 other newborns have been rescued this week from under tons of debris at Juarez and General hospitals kept alive hopes that there may be still more survivors found. But some foreign rescue crews were packing up and heading home, an indication that the chances of finding many more victims alive are very slim.
Death Toll Disputed
The previous official death toll of 4,596 was contradicted late Thursday by an Interior Ministry spokesman. Fernando Perez, undersecretary of the ministry, handed out a document that gave a count of 1,840 bodies recovered and between 1,500 and 2,000 victims still buried in the rubble.
Explaining part of the discrepancy, Perez claimed that the government is counting death certificates while the police, who provided the earlier figures, had been speculating. However, Perez could not supply details on where the 1,500 to 2,000 unrecovered bodies might be found, and thus was unable to elaborate on what is becoming a highly flexible death toll.
In all, at least nine survivors were found Thursday. Police said a U.S. rescue team working with engineers from a Mexican construction company pulled two infants and another young child from the ruins of General Hospital. A 10-day-old boy and two women were rescued before dawn from Juarez Hospital. And a man, his 4-year-old son and a badly injured woman were found in a collapsed apartment house.
Doctors ventured several theories about why Baby Hernandez Sandoval and so many others born just before the quake survived so long without milk or even water.
"There is no scientific explanation for it," said Dr. Juan Jose Diaz Miranda, head of the intensive care unit at the National Pediatric Institute. "It goes against what we would expect."
The infants may have survived because they went into a kind of hibernation, moving little and conserving energy.
"The absence of sound, light and other external stimuli probably caused the babies' metabolism to slow down," said Dr. Alfredo Bobadilla, who led the pediatric emergency team at Juarez Hospital. "They used less oxygen and glucose, allowing them to live a long time under bad conditions."
There was also speculation that adult survivors may have cared for the babies for a while before dying themselves. And, not being old enough to know what happened to them, the babies would have experienced none of the shock and anxiety that panicked and drained the energy of adult survivors.
"But if anyone tells you he knows for sure why (the babies survived), it's a lie," said Cuevas of the Military Hospital.