Search for girl trapped beneath rubble in Mexico comes to puzzling end: She never existed

For days, officials searched for a girl said to be trapped beneath the rubble.

ByABC News
September 22, 2017, 5:24 PM

—Mexico City, Mexico -- After a 7.1 magnitude earthquake struck near Mexico City on Tuesday, a frantic search ensued for a 12-year-old girl believed to be trapped beneath the rubble of her collapsed school. But in a bizarre turn of events, officials now say she never existed.

Throughout much of Wednesday and into Thursday, Mexico and the world were transfixed on a pancaked pile of cinderblock and rebar that once made up a wing of the Enrique Rebsamen primary and secondary school in the capital.

Rescue workers gingerly pulled out some survivors and recovered bodies from the pile of debris, but Mexicans officials believed at least one student was still buried alive there. For some 48 hours, rescuers tried to reach the girl, who reportedly told them her name and said there were others trapped nearby.

ABC News and other media outlets reported about the search for the girl, based on interviews with Mexican officials and rescue workers at the scene who thought the story was true.

Here's a closer look at how it all unfolded:

Tuesday, Sept. 19

The earthquake hit central Mexico around 2:14 p.m. ET, just hours after the region engaged in earthquake drills on the 32nd anniversary of a 1985 earthquake that claimed thousands of lives in Mexico. Tuesday's quake was centered near Raboso in Puebla state, some 75 miles southeast of Mexico City, according to the United States Geological Survey.

    The natural disaster caused extensive damage to the capital, cracking roads and leveling at least 44 buildings, including homes, schools and office buildings, according to Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto, who did a flyover of the city Tuesday afternoon.

    Mexico's education minister reported later Tuesday that 25 bodies -- 21 children and four adults -- had been recovered from the collapsed Enrique Rebsamen primary and secondary school in Mexico City.

    The Associated Press reported that relatives said they had received WhatsApp messages from two girls inside the school's wreckage.

    Wednesday, Sept. 20

    Search and rescue efforts were well underway at the school Wednesday as reports of the trapped girl began to emerge.

    Mexico's education minister told ABC News on Wednesday morning that 11 people had been rescued so far. But three others -- two children and one adult -- were still missing.

    Foro TV reported that rescue workers spotted a child amid the rubble and shouted to her to move her hand if she could hear them, and she wiggled her fingers. A search dog was sent in and confirmed she was alive, Foro TV reported.

    PHOTO: Volunteers and rescue workers search for children trapped inside the Enrique Rebsamen school after an earthquake in southern Mexico City, Sept. 20, 2017.
    Volunteers and rescue workers search for children trapped inside the Enrique Rebsamen school after an earthquake in southern Mexico City, Sept. 20, 2017.

    On Wednesday night, the education minister said in an interview with Televisa that the girl's name was Frida Sofia and she was 12 years old. The minister said the girl was under a granite table or another piece of sturdy furniture that rescue workers believed was protecting her from the collapsed concrete slabs.

    The girl told rescue workers two others were trapped near her, saying she could feel them but wasn't sure if they were alive. Rescue workers used a tube to pass the girl water and oxygen, the minister told Televisa.

    Later, when the minister spoke to ABC News, he said he cannot confirm the girl's name, age or condition.

    "Now, what we know by certain is apparently there is a girl that the rescue team, I told you, they made contact with her, they talked with her, and apparently there are two other people apparently with life," he told ABC News on camera. "But we don’t know, and we want to be very careful with information."

    Thursday, Sept. 21

    Adding to the mystery and the confusion, ABC News spoke to at least two rescuers -- medics caked with dust -- who said they had tunneled their way to within feet of where it was believed the girl was trapped. They said they’d heard a girl's voice and spoken to her. They also said they'd heard knocking. But that had faded by Thursday morning, they said.

    Earlier that morning, the Mexican military delivered an on-camera appeal to parents of children who are still missing to come to the school. Perplexed officials told ABC News no parents had reported their children missing.

    Mexico's education minister told Televisa rescuers found another dead teacher inside the collapsed school. He also confirmed that they were still in contact with the girl, Frida Sofia. He said it was unclear how many other children were also trapped.

    PHOTO: Volunteers and rescue workers search for children trapped inside the Enrique Rebsamen school after an earthquake in southern Mexico City, Sept. 20, 2017.
    Volunteers and rescue workers search for children trapped inside the Enrique Rebsamen school after an earthquake in southern Mexico City, Sept. 20, 2017.

    Then, Mexico's deputy minister of information told ABC News on Thursday afternoon it appeared no children remain trapped inside after cross-referencing all of the names of students and speaking with parents. He said 19 children and six teachers were killed inside the school when it buckled, while 11 others were hospitalized.

    The deputy minister of information told ABC News the individual rescuers believed was the girl was possibly just a maintenance worker. But he couldn't explain the discrepancy.

    Later, when asked whether there was ever a girl amid the rubble, Mexico's undersecretary of education told ABC News, "No, no, that's for certain."

    Members of the Los Angeles County Fire Department trained and equipped for urban search and rescue missions were deployed to Mexico City on Thursday by the United States Agency for International Development's Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance. They swept most of the collapsed school with canines and found no signs of life, though the team told ABC News that night they were only able to access about 75 percent of the debris.

    PHOTO: Rescue teams work at the Rebsamen school in Mexico City, Sep. 20, 2017.
    Rescue teams work at the Rebsamen school in Mexico City,, Sep. 20, 2017.

    Mexico's Navy, which was coordinating relief efforts in the capital, told reporters there was never a girl, according to The Associated Press.

    "We want to emphasize that we have no knowledge about the report that emerged with the name of a girl," Navy Assistant Secretary Angel Enrique Sarmiento said Thursday. "We never had any knowledge about that report, and we do not believe -- we are sure -- it was not a reality."

    Sarmiento told reporters a camera lowered into the debris showed blood tracks where an injured person apparently dragged himself or herself, and the only individual still listed as missing was a school employee.

    Sarmiento later apologized for being so categorical, saying if a person remains trapped it could be a child or an adult.

    "The information existing at this moment doesn't allow us to say if it is an adult or a child," he said. "As long as there is the slightest possibility of someone alive, we will continue searching with the same energy."

    ABC News' Mark Osborne, Kirit Radia and Robert Zepeda contributed to this report.

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