Mexico earthquake: Trapped girl who sparked 30-hour rescue mission turns out 'not to exist'

Emily Shugerman
Search and rescue team members work to bring down a large piece of concrete during rescue efforts at the Enrique Rebsamen school in Mexico City: AP Photo/Anthony Vasquez

A 12-year-old girl trapped in a collapsed school building – who had become symbol of hope in earthquake-devastated Mexico City – does not exist, officials have said.

The news came as rescue teams worked to free students and teachers trapped in the elementary school, which crumbled after a 7.1 magnitude earthquake struck this week. After more than 30 hours of work, the Mexican Navy announced that all children at the school had been accounted for.

A single, adult school worker may still be alive inside the building, Navy Assistant Secretary Angel Enrique Sarmiento told reporters.

But as for the 12-year-old girl still trapped in the rubble? "We’ve never had any knowledge of this version,” he said.

The announcement left many wondering what had happened to “Frida Sofia,” the name given to the schoolgirl who rescue workers said they had made contact with from inside the building.

Workers said they had spotted the girl’s hand poking out from the rubble on Wednesday. When they called out to see if she was alive, they said, she waved her hand in response.

At one point, Mexican broadcaster Televisa reported that the girl had alerted rescue workers to four more people who were trapped around her. Thermal imaging also indicated that four more people might still be inside the school, a volunteer worker told the Associated Press.

Mr Sarmiento pushed back against these reports on Thursday.

"We have done an accounting with school officials and we are certain that all the children either died, unfortunately, are in hospitals, or are safe at their homes," he said.

Rescuers tunnelled into the collapsed school building on Wednesday and Thursday, looking for trapped students and teachers. Volunteers crowded around to remove debris by the bucketful. Often, the work proceeded in complete silence, allowing workers to better hear any calls for help.

As television crews broadcast the efforts, hoping to catch 'Frida Sofia's" heroic rescue, workers pulled the lifeless body of a 58-year-old school worker out of the wreckage.

All told, 19 children and six adults died in the building, Mr Sarmiento said. Eleven were safely rescued.

Rumors circulated widely among anxious family members during the days-long rescue. Some parents told a local newspaper that they had received WhatsApp messages from children trapped in the building, though the reports could not be confirmed.

Family members for "Frida Sofia," however, never materialised.

Rescue workers search for children trapped inside the collapsed Enrique Rebsamen school in Mexico City (Carlos Cisneros/AP)

A local university worker told Reuters he’d volunteered at the rescue site overnight, helping to clear the wreckage. The man, Vladimir Navarro, said the rescue workers were "just meters away from getting to the children," but had to be painstakingly careful in the unstable rubble.

"Taking any decision is dangerous,” Mr Navarro said.

Another volunteer, Pedro Serrano, described digging his way into a collapsed classroom.

“We saw some chairs and wooden tables,” he told the AP. “The next thing we saw was a leg, and then we started to move rubble and we found a girl and two adults – a woman and a man.”

All three of them had died.

Rescue workers search for people under the rubble of a collapsed building after an earthquake hit Mexico City (Reuters)

The earthquake that destroyed the school building killed an estimated 245 people across the country, and injured more than 2,000. It was the second major earthquake to hit Mexico in less than two weeks.

Rescue workers saved more than 50 people from crumbled buildings in the days following the quake, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto said. In some areas, volunteers formed human chains spanning several city blocks to pass rubble away from rescue sites.

"Faced with the force of nature, we are all vulnerable and that is why we all unite when it comes to saving a life or helping a victim," Mr Nieto said in a national address. "If anything distinguishes Mexicans, it is our generosity and fraternity."