MEXICO CITY — As many as 360 buildings and homes are in danger of collapse or with major damage in Mexico City nearly a week after a magnitude 7.1 earthquake completely collapsed 38 structures.
The risk of delayed collapse is real: The cupola of Our Lady of Angels Church, damaged and cracked by the Sept. 19 quake, split in half and crashed to the ground Sunday evening. There were no injuries.
Nervous neighbours continued calling in police on Monday as apparently new cracks appeared in their apartment blocks or existing ones worsened, even as the city struggled to get back to normality.
Officials said they had cleared only 103 of Mexico City’s nearly 9,000 schools to reopen Monday and said it could be two to three weeks before all were declared safe — leaving hundreds of thousands of children idle.
Mexico City Mayor Miguel Angel Mancera said at least seven schools were among the buildings thought to be at risk of tumbling.
At several points in the city, employees gathered on sidewalks in front of their workplaces Monday refusing to enter, because they feared their buildings could collapse.
“We are afraid for our own safety,” said Maribel Martinez Ramirez, an employee of a government development agency who, along with dozens of coworkers, refused to enter their workplace Monday. “The building is leaning, there are cracks.”
Mancera said 360 “red level” buildings would either have to be demolished or receive major structural reinforcement. Another 1,136 were reparable, and 8,030 of the buildings inspected so far were found to be habitable.
Search teams were still digging through dangerous piles of rubble Monday, hoping against the odds to find survivors. The city has accounted for 186 of the 324 dead nationwide.
On Sunday, marines retried what is believed to be the last body from a collapsed school on the city’s south side where a total of 26 people — 7 adults and 19 children — were crushed by a fallen wing of the school.
But like at other sites where there is little likelihood of finding anyone alive, the marines vowed to continue searching — avoiding use of demolition or heavy machinery — until “there is full certainty, duly certified by the appropriate authorities, that there is nobody left, alive or dead, in the collapsed building.
Still, the smell of rotting corpses increasingly hung over the largest remaining search site near the city’s centre.
While no one has been found alive since Wednesday, relatives of the trapped, anxious to cling to any hope of rescue, won injunctions against actions that could cause the ruins to collapse further.
The federal judiciary council said Sunday that court injunctions for seven points around the city prevent authorities from using backhoes or bulldozers to remove rubble, in order to allow “search and rescue operations to continue …. to preserve the life of people who may be among the remains of the structures.”
As darkness fell Sunday, prayers were held by families of the missing who have been gathered near the collapsed office building near downtown.
Hugo Luna, whose cousin Erika Gabriela Albarran was believed trapped in the fallen building, complained that officials had not immediately informed families when two bodies were removed Saturday night. “There is a lot of distrust of authorities,” he said.
His aunt, who was also inside the building when the quake hit but escaped, is traumatized, he said.
“Nothing happened to her, but now she has panic attacks,” Luna said. “You open the door, she hears a noise and she gets scared.”
One by one, other searches have closed down in recent days, after sniffer dogs were sent in and didn’t find life and thermal imaging devices turned up no body heat signatures. Heavy machinery moved in to begin removing the mountains of debris. Empty lots began to appear where just days ago a building stood.
Isaac Garcia, spokesman for the neighbours on the southern side of the city, said they had maintained a good relationship with the navy and civil defence authorities running the search. But he said they obtained the injunction “to make sure that we had something based in law to protect us.”
Their hopes were kindled slightly Sunday when members of a Japanese search and rescue team pulled a small white dog alive from the rubble, cradling and petting it as they brought it down.
Associated Press writers Mark Stevenson and Christopher Sherman contributed to this report.
Maria Verza, The Associated Press