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Rescue crews continue search for survivors of earthquake in Venezuela

July 12, 1997

CUMANA, Venezuela (AP) _ Rescuers working under the glare of a floodlight used a crane to peel off layers of a collapsed building early today, seeking victims of a deadly earthquake. Officials held out hope they would find more survivors in the wreckage.

With several hundred people craning their necks to watch from nearby street corners, workers used heavy equipment to lift the rubble from a seven-story office and apartment building leveled by Wednesday’s quake. Exhausted firemen sprawled out on a nearby lawn and tried to sleep.

Rescuers who tunneled into the wreck Friday saw air pockets and, encouragingly, did not smell decomposing flesh.

``The odor is key,″ said Jerry Morales, a Puerto Rican expert who took part in disaster relief efforts in Mexico City following its 1985 quake. ``There were many spaces with air.″

Searchers found no signs of life in the pancaked sixth and seventh floors Friday, so they went ahead and lifted those layers off. Early today, they were exploring the fifth floor.

At least 67 people died and 469 were injured in the 6.9-magnitude quake, the South American nation’s worst in 30 years.

The temblor struck hardest in nearby Cariaco, where a high school roof collapsed while students were taking final exams. About 40 people in the school, all but three of them students, were crushed to death. Another 40 walked away or were pulled from the rubble.

Authorities today knocked down the remaining walls of the school in order to remove the last few bodies.

Officials said between five and 13 people were unaccounted for in the rubble of the office building in Cumana, 340 miles east of the capital, Caracas.

On Friday, Morales, the disaster relief expert, entered a tunnel dug into rubble about three stories high with an ultrasound telescopic camera. He hoped to hear, or even see, survivors. That didn’t happen.

Others became discouraged. Chances for survival were slim, firefighters coordinator Jose Antonio Pazo said. Of the victims, he said, ``We’re going to take them out, body by body, and deliver them in the best condition to their families.″

Morales and Civil Defense Col. Angel Freitez, overall director of rescue operations and the official authorized to call off the search, were more hopeful.

Morales noted that the building collapsed at a slant, much the way the Benito Juarez Hospital in Mexico City did 12 years ago. Survivors were rescued from there seven days after the earthquake, he said.

Friends and relatives of the missing tried to be optimistic.

``There’s still hope they may be alive,″ Dante Peralta, 35, said of his wife and two daughters, ages 2 and 1.

Rescuers working a third straight night planned to drill more holes in the rubble, to provide air passageways and possibly introduce equipment to verify signs of life.

Elaida Perez was the latest survivor pulled from the office building. She was preparing coffee Wednesday afternoon for the staff of a small tuna exporting firm when the ground rolled and the building shuddered.

A moment later, she had fallen five floors and was trapped, construction debris just far enough away so she could breathe. The office secretary had fallen on top of her.

``Fanny, don’t go to sleep. We’re going to get out of here,″ Perez told her colleague. Fanny never responded. Soon, her body went cold.

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

``I thought I would survive because I have faith in God,″ she said, adding that 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.

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 on Friday, doctors set casts on broken bones outside the seven-story building, working in military tents in case of aftershocks.

The hospital was evacuated Wednesday for fear it might fall down. It didn’t, but the walls were cracked. ``Right now, nobody dares to go back inside,″ Dr. Eliso Noriega said.

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