A favorite teacher, a janitor always friendly with the kids, the two women who patrolled the halls and greeted children at the school’s gates, a best friend’s little sister. These people feared or confirmed dead Wednesday were on the mind of 12-year-old Luis Carlos Herrera Tome.
The Enrique Rebsamen school, the Mexico City private school he attended for eight years, had fallen around him less than 24 hours earlier during a magnitude 7.1 earthquake. The only thing he wanted to do was go back, to help somehow.
His mother, Norma Tome, said he wouldn’t be allowed into the site, it was too dangerous. But they went to the school anyway. It took them an hour to go three blocks because they kept bumping into people they knew. With each encounter came a halt to exchange information about names, hospitals, funeral plans, even the school’s layout.
When a couple asked Luis Carlos to describe for the umpteenth time what he saw and how he escaped, he hugged his arms tightly across his chest and turned away when he began tearing up.
Luis Carlos and his mother scanned handwritten lists of the missing and those taken to hospitals, wincing at names they recognized.
Linking arms and running
The earthquake, centered in nearby Puebla state, killed at least 223 people across Mexico, including 21 children and four adults in the school. A dramatic operation continued Wednesday as searchers pried into the rubble looking for three people still missing. Federal Education Secretary Aurelio Nuno said 11 people have been rescued.
Hugs were offered and accepted, but Luis Carlos felt helpless outside the security barriers playing the events of the previous day back.
He said he was in English class Tuesday when everything started moving. He headed for the door leaving his backpack, books, pencils — everything — behind.
First he turned to the school’s main staircase, a concrete structure toward the front of the building.
“I saw that the ceiling started to break apart so I turned around,” he said.
“I grabbed my friends and we took off running,” he added, showing how they linked arms.
They ran together for another staircase. The building continued shaking violently, and one friend fell on the stairs.
“It moved a lot. I braced myself and cleared like five stairs in one jump,” he said.
Outside but still trapped
Dust falling from walls and the ceiling made it hard to see, but he could make out students with cut and bleeding arms. Everyone was crying and screaming, he said.
The students who exited with Luis Carlos quickly realized they were trapped even once outside. Residents of a neighboring apartment building broke through a fence atop a tall wall separating the properties and lowered a ladder so the students could climb out.
On his way out, Luis Carlos saw his favorite janitor with rubble on his back apparently dead. In the street, ambulances were arriving and teachers stained with blood were crying.
“It was chaos,” he said. But Luis Carlos had only one thought looking back at the collapsed school: Where was his little brother?
Where is my brother?
The brother, 7-year-old Jose Raul Herrera Tome, had been in a classroom in a building right next to his brother’s.
The younger boy told his mom later that a classmate was the first to scream: “It’s shaking!”
He said the students heard no alarm even though it occurred only two hours after their school, and every other one in Mexico, had done an evacuation drill to mark the 32nd anniversary of the 1985 earthquake that killed thousands in Mexico City.
“That’s what makes me mad,” the older brother said of not hearing an alarm. “How many seconds were lost there?”
Jose Raul also ran first for the big staircase at the front of the school, but stopped when he saw it beginning to crumble. He ran back to his classroom and waited there with his classmates until the shaking stopped.
The boys’ mother said a multipurpose room near the school’s front staircase was where most of the dead had been recovered.
“‘Mom, I saw a girl go down because she was crushed,”’ Tome recalled her younger son telling her after he escaped the building. “He cried a lot for that and said, ‘I couldn’t save her.”’
When Jose Raul made it to the street he looked back at the school and said, “My brother, my brother,” Tome said.
The brothers hugged when they found each other across the street.
“We cried. He was my biggest worry,” Luis Carlos said.
Many ‘what ifs’
On Wednesday, Luis Carlos helped pass water and bandages for an hour, and answered frantic parents asking if he had seen their kids. He never let go of his brother.
The family planned to go later in the day to a wake for Claudia Ramirez, the second-grade teacher who Jose Raul adored.
Ramirez was “one of those rare exceptional teachers — unique ones who leave their imprint on the lives of the children and the parents,” Tome said.
Later, Luis Carlos returned to the terrifying moments during the earthquake, which occurred just a few minutes before he was supposed to move to his biology class. He had remembered that they hadn’t finished their lab on Friday and were scheduled to be back in the lab Tuesday in the part of the school that collapsed.
“I don’t know if I would be here,” he said, suddenly feeling the weight of the quake’s timing.