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Rescuers listen for signs of life among rubble; hear none

July 12, 1997

CUMANA, Venezuela (AP) _ Rescuers with listening probes burrowed into the debris of a demolished office building Friday, trying to pick up moans, breathing or any sign of life from survivors of an earthquake that killed at least 67 people.

No such sounds were heard, but the search continued a third straight night.

Shortly before midnight, a crane lifted off the roof of the crumbled seven-story building so rescue teams finally could gain access to rubble below.

Dante Peralta, 35, one of about 1,000 people gathered nearby, awaited word on the fate of his missing wife and two young daughters. ``There’s still some hope they may be alive,″ he said.

Wednesday’s 6.9-magnitude quake, Venezuela’s most devastating in three decades, left at least 469 people injured.

Rescue officials offered no evidence that there are more survivors, yet _ while doubtful themselves _ they refused to rule that completely out. They said the seven-story building collapsed at a slant, possibly leaving air pockets.

``It’s a difficult decision,″ said Civil Defense Col. Angel Freitez, the official authorized to call off the search. He said he would not do so before Saturday.

Nevertheless, firefighters coordinator Jose Antonio Pazo said the focus of the rescue after two days is shifting. ``We’re going to take them out, body by body, and deliver them in the best condition to their families.″

The death toll increased to 67 Friday after two bodies were pulled from the ruins of the office and apartment building. But several others were still under the rubble.

On Thursday, rescuers occasionally heard knocking and faint calls for help. By late that night, the steel and concrete rubble had gone silent.

Still, disaster relief personnel asked onlookers to be quiet while they listened for shouts, sighs, scratches _ anything.

They heard nothing, Pazo and Freitez said.

The earthquake struck hardest in nearby Cariaco, where a high school roof collapsed while students were taking final exams, and at the office building in this state capital, 340 miles east of Caracas.

About 40 people in the school, all but three of them students, were crushed to death when the roof collapsed. Another 40 walked away or were pulled from the rubble.

In Cumana, Elaida Perez was the last survivor pulled from the wreckage. She was making coffee Wednesday afternoon for the staff of a small tuna exporting firm when the seven-story building shuddered.

A moment later, she realized she had fallen five floors and was trapped beneath construction debris just far enough away so she could breathe.

On top of her lay the office secretary.

``Fanny, don’t go to sleep,″ Perez told her colleague. ``We’re going to get out of here.″ The woman didn’t respond. Soon, her body went cold.

Perez, a 42-year-old cleaning woman, spoke with reporters Friday from a hospital bed, her amputated leg covered by a bandage.

``I thought I would survive because I have faith in God,″ she said. Still, it was a ``great joy″ to be extricated from the rubble after 18 hours.

The loss of a leg, severed above the knee, was a painful but small price to pay, she said.

Disaster relief was rushed to the coastal region. The government sent tents, doctors, water trucks and other supplies. Funds have been earmarked to rebuild homes and buildings.

Within just two days, a lot of the immediate tasks were nearing completion: rescuing survivors, taking care of the injured, burying the dead, clearing roads and restoring public services.

At University Hospital, doctors set castes on broken bones on the grass outside the seven-story building. They worked in military tents, in case of aftershocks.

The hospital was evacuated Wednesday for fear it might fall down. It didn’t, but cracks are evident on walls and ``right now, nobody dares to go back inside,″ said Dr. Eliso Noriega.

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