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Mexico Clears Quake-Damaged Streets

June 17, 1999

PUEBLA, Mexico (AP) _ When the earthquake struck, the four-story apartment building to the left of Maria Teresa Carmeno’s fell into a stack. In the building to the right, the bottom two floors collapsed.

Yet Carmeno’s building _ identical to the others and just a few feet away _ was undamaged in Tuesday’s deadly 6.7 magnitude earthquake. It was a miracle, Carmeno said. And it was a miracle that no one in the other two buildings _ containing a total of 24 apartments _ was killed or injured.

In Mexico, Wednesday was a day to mourn the dead and marvel at the miracle of survival.

The official death toll rose to 16 nationwide and local officials said it could rise further. Hundreds more were left injured. Some 4,000 were forced from their homes in Puebla state, which sustained the worst damage and has been declared a disaster area.

But as residents of the state capital, the colonial city of Puebla, looked at the crumpled buildings, the fallen debris and the dangerously tilting bell towers, many were astonished that only four people had been killed there and 12 overall in the state.

One reason was the timing of the quake. It occurred in mid-afternoon while many people were out of their homes and offices, returning from the traditional two-hour lunch break.

``If this had happened at 7 o’clock at night, it would have been a massacre,″ said Gabriel Vanegas, who owns one of the apartments in the complex, but moved out years ago after cracks started appearing in his walls.

On Wednesday, Mexican soldiers wearing blue masks sweated under the noon sun to lift boulders that had fallen from toppled domes into church courtyards. The sound of shovels hitting stone echoed through the streets of the city, 65 miles southeast of Mexico City and about 80 miles north of the quake’s center.

The city’s long history may have played a role in some of the damage. Residents of the collapsed apartment building said one of the structures, the worst damaged, was built atop a colonial-era well, unused for centuries, but still full of water and unstable mud.

``This was a tragedy that could have been prevented if they had just studied the soil where they were building,″ said architect Salvador Rivero, whose apartment was destroyed.

Carmeno, a 42-year-old mother of two, was one of the few people in the complex when the quake struck.

``There was silence outside. The whole thing happened silently,″ she said.

``We didn’t know what had happened until we walked outside. Then we saw ... ,″ she said, with a look of amazement spreading across her face.

``We heard children crying `Help me Mommy,‴ she said.

The few people in the other buildings were pulled to safety.

``It was a miracle. I call it truly a miracle no one died here,″ said Carmeno, whose two children were visiting their grandmother when the quake struck.

But just as there were miracles, death also came arbitrarily.

In Puebla, a 1 1/2-year-old boy fell into a well during the quake.

Forty-year-old Jose Conrado Vega ran from a downtown store to his car during the quake; just as he got into the compact vehicle, part of the building’s facade collapsed into the street, crushing him. He would have been safe if he had stayed inside the store, whose interior was largely undamaged, neighbors said.

``He didn’t know what was waiting for him outside,″ said neighbor Raimundo Villas, who saw the facade collapse.