CAIRO — For 36 hours, she sat in darkness, pinned up to her waist by the rubble of a collapsed apartment building. But her "screaming and praying" paid off Tuesday for Samantha Miksche as she was pulled from the ruins that authorities here fear may have fatally entombed scores of others.
The 17-year-old from Redondo Beach was cut, bruised, nauseated and desperately thirsty.
But she had miraculously survived a horrifying ordeal: Gripping the hand of an Egyptian companion who also was rescued Tuesday, the trapped teen had listened, helplessly, to the sounds of bulldozers and rescuers working above her, as well as to fading cries for help coming from others, dying and buried alive.
"It was terrifying," she recounted from her hospital bed here Tuesday night. "I was just begging God to help me--saying whatever I could--constantly saying: 'Please, God, help me! Please have mercy!' I just didn't want to die this early and this painfully."
And while Miksche was elated to be rescued, she faced the anguish of knowing that her mother had not been found in the toppled 12-story apartment building where rescue operations entered their third day Tuesday night.
Hopes for more survivors faded with each passing hour, especially as rescues grew fewer and further apart. A scent of death wafted above the mud-colored mountain of debris, swarmed over by sniffing dogs and German technicians with sensitive listening devices searching for any signs of life.
The confirmed death toll at the building, which crashed without warning Sunday evening, rose on Tuesday to 25. But authorities fear that up to 100 people may still be inside the chaos of pulverized concrete and twisted steel rods.
On Tuesday, the building owner and two construction engineers remained under arrest amid charges that five extra stories had been illegally added to the structure. Crowds also gathered at the disaster site, clamoring for their missing or dead relatives and demanding retribution and justice.
Miksche--who is nursing minor injuries, including dehydration, scratches, a badly swollen right foot and swollen knees--had gone to the doomed building with her mother and a friend, Noha Fawzi, 21, to look at a furnished apartment. Miksche and her mother thought they might lease the unit, short-term, until they returned to the United States in a month or so.
Their presence in Cairo was hardly unusual, friends and relatives said. Miksche and her tight-knit family have an international flavor. She was born in Australia. Her mother, Samira, was born in Egypt and later became a U.S. citizen; her father, Rudolf, is Austrian.
Miksche and her mother loved to travel and had been here for five months on an extended vacation, spending time with family and friends, Miksche said.
They had been in the second-floor apartment only five minutes or so when catastrophe struck: She and Fawzi, whose uncle owned the apartment, were looking over a bedroom when Miksche heard her mother calling from the living room.
"I heard my mother call my name, but by the time I came around the corner all I saw was a wall coming down in front of us," Miksche recounted, her voice trembling. "Then the ceiling fell and the lights went out and we were stuck, back to back, in a very small space."
Miksche, who said she has never liked tight places, recalled that she was trapped under a fallen ceiling and broken window glass that covered her legs and waist. But she and her friend were lucky: They just happened to be in a corridor that did not collapse fully.
Miksche said she could reach Fawzi but not see her. That is how they spent the next day and a half.
Fawzi told other media that she and Miksche "were separated by some rocks and I would give her my hand for comfort. You almost die 1,000 times in one second. It was awful."
The worst moments, as they sat in the pitch black, happened early on, when she heard a victim dying.
"I could hear this woman near to me, a Muslim, praying, screaming, saying the Koran," she said. "Then, one time I heard a boom. And her voice just faded. . . . I thought, 'Oh, my God, we're next.' "
As the agonizing hours advanced, Miksche and Fawzi could hear rescuers digging overhead. They tried to get their attention, Miksche said: "We heard [a rescuer] who would come every day with a bulldozer. We tried to scream as much as we could so that he would hear us. We were so far down, though, and he was starting from the top. We knew that he wasn't coming to us for a very long time."
Apart from her terror, she was thirsty, hungry and sick. An aspiring actress and model who pulled out of Redondo Union High School in 1993 after less than a semester there for independent study so she could pursue a career, Miksche had been "starving" herself for five days before the disaster in order to lose the weight she had picked up on vacation, she said.
Her rescue, along with that of Fawzi, was all the more remarkable, Egyptian authorities noted, for occurring 17 hours after any victims had been taken out of the rubble alive. Rescuers' hopes for finding any more survivors had dimmed markedly before they finally became aware of Fawzi and Miksche. The young women's screams had been picked up by the listening devices, and rescuers frantically dug a tunnel to them.
Fawzi, who was not buried in debris, was lifted out at 5 a.m. Two hours later, rescue workers, excavating with their hands because they worried that rubble might fall and crush Miksche, lifted her out and rushed her to a hospital.
Described Tuesday by her onetime principal, Bob Paulson, as a "bright, attractive young lady," Miksche said from her hospital bed that all she wants now is to hurry back to the United States and to her sister Sally, in Anaheim. "I miss my home," she said.
Times correspondents Deborah Belgum and Tracy Johnson in Los Angeles contributed to this report.