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A Year After a Quake Crumbled a Mexico School, Grieving Parents Seek Justice

MEXICO CITY — Just five days before a powerful earthquake struck last year, a history teacher at a Mexico City school gave a lecture about the capital’s propensity for this sort of natural disaster.

The talk was part of the school’s commemoration of the anniversary of the 1985 earthquake, which killed about 10,000 people. The teacher, Fernando Flores, 41, wanted to drive home the point that the destruction was caused not only by Mexico’s geology, but also by the human errors — corruption, the skirting of rules or a flawed bureaucracy — that can disrupt enforcement of building codes.

From where he gave his lecture, he could see right into the classroom of his oldest son, Santiago, a second grader at the school, the Enrique C. Rébsamen school.

“He kept standing up and waving every chance he got,” Mr. Flores said of Santiago.

When a 7.1 earthquake struck early the next week, on Sept. 19 — exactly 32 years after the 1985 quake — it took down thousands of buildings and killed nearly 369 people in the central region of Mexico.

The school was one of the buildings to crumble.

To many Mexicans, the school — where Santiago, 18 other children and seven adults perished — became a symbol of their pain, and of the very human cost of bypassing construction codes.

After the 1985 quake, Mexico adopted some of the world’s toughest building regulations. But they were unevenly enforced.

This was also the case at Enrique C. Rébsamen. Unauthorized construction overburdened part of the structure that collapsed during the quake, trapping students inside — even within the staircase that was supposed to serve as their evacuation route, investigators said.

A year later, the school’s gutted remains are a constant, haunting reminder of what happened. All that is left of the four-story building that once rang with the voices of more than 300 students, from preschoolers to middle schoolers, are a few braced walls and debris.

“It hurts to go by every day, and it will hurt for quite some time,” said Martha Tinoco, 48, who lives near the school and is the mother of three children who had studied at the school.

The two oldest had graduated, but her youngest, Regina, was in fourth grade at the school. She was able to evacuate in time, but there was so much confusion after the collapse that Mrs. Tinoco was not able to find her until well into the night.

“The whole area is depressed,” said Mrs. Tinoco, who knows parents who have vowed never to return to the scene and several families who packed up and left.

Regina, like several other students who survived, was transferred to a nearby school. The children had offers of preferential tuition rates and aid, although Mrs. Tinoco stressed that what she and other parents were looking for in a new school was “whichever had the strongest construction.”

The shock still lingers, she said.

“All the kids know someone who ended up homeless or who died,” Mrs. Tinoco said.

Most of the buildings that collapsed that September were razed months ago, with promises to rebuild, relocate residents or use the area for memorials in honor of the dead.

The Enrique C. Rébsamen school might soon be razed as well. Authorities began the work in July, but it was temporarily suspended by angry family members who demanded they be present to ensure no evidence or important documents for a continuing investigation were lost.

The investigation by Mexico City’s attorney general’s office found that unbeknown to many who frequented the school, the building’s top two floors had served as living quarters for the school’s owner, Mónica García Villegas, and her family.

The floors had been extensively renovated, according to the inquiry opened by the municipal government after the collapse. But the construction permits filed on behalf of Ms. García Villegas with local authorities, and reviewed by The New York Times, were only for “maintenance and paint work” during which “the structure would not be modified.”

Claudia de Buen, a lawyer with the parent’s legal advisory team, said that the official investigations and their own experts’ reports showed that the building ended up being 242 tons over weight.

Ms. García Villegas had expanded her apartment and built a terrace with heavy materials and without fortifying the support columns below, according to the reports. Paramedics said they had to move pieces of granite and black marble during the rescue attempts.

The investigation points to this additional — and unlicensed — work as the reason for the collapse. Parents have also accused the municipal government of not inspecting the school facilities after the renovation.

Ms. García Villegas fled shortly after the collapse and her whereabouts is unknown. She is being sought by Interpol. The engineer responsible for supervising work done to the school, Juan Mario Velarde Gámez, was arrested in July and is in pretrial detention. They are both suspected of falsifying construction permits. Ms. García Villegas is also charged with improperly filing land permits, negligence and murder.

As the government’s investigation goes on, the families are attempting to deal with their grief by organizing a group — the Brigada Amigos — to take clothes, toys, medical supplies and food to shelters in Mexico City and in other states affected by last year’s quake, like Puebla and Morelos.

“I used to feel like, ‘What can I do with all this pain?’” said Ana Velázquez, 45. “Giving back has helped ease it.”

Ms. Velázquez had two boys at the school. The youngest, Alex, is 3. He had started preschool and was rescued from the rubble. His older brother, Eduardo, was in second grade. He did not survive.

With help from lawyers from the Mexican Bar Association Foundation, parents from the school began civil proceedings in April. They want the suit to help prevent what happened in the Enrique C. Rébsamen school from ever happening again.

Ms. De Buen, the lawyer, said the goal is to require authorities to monitor the integrity of all schools, especially those built before the new 1987 construction codes. Enrique C. Rébsamen was built in 1983.

Mexico’s Ministry of Public Education said that more than 12,000 schools had suffered at least slight damage in the quake and that 7,000 would need renovation. That work is proceeding in fits and starts.

Meanwhile, parents and neighbors of Enrique C. Rébsamen are bracing for the possibility that what is left of the school will be torn down.

“You don’t want it to be forgotten,” Mrs. Tinoco said.

But forgetting is not an option for parents like Mr. Flores. He now works at another middle school, in an administrative post. He is not ready to face a classroom full of children he said, knowing his eldest son will never be among them.

Source: NYT > World

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