Beneath blue skies a lone yellow butterfly, Aztec symbol of fire and death, flitted about the ruins of the seven-story obstetrics and gynecology building of Mexico City’s General Hospital. As he had done so often, French Army Capt. Frederic Pierre, 35, knelt and peered through a crack in the broken concrete. He asked for a flashlight, peered again, then requested silence. Captain Pierre’s eyes never left this target beneath the slabs, as hundreds of weary rescue workers once again froze mid-motion, their tools and machines stilled, heads cocked in the direction of the hunched-over, bareheaded figure in olive fatigues. Except for the buzz of flies, the sputter of a helicopter passing overhead and the breeze-whipped puffs of concrete dust, all was quiet, motionless. So far on this Friday, nine days after the first quake hit Mexico City, only the dead had been removed, mostly babies, quickly carried away in plastic bags of the same yellow hue symbolizing death for Mexicans past and present.
Pierre dropped a sensitive microphone into the crack. Connected by a cord to an amplifier aboveground, the sensor descended seven feet before striking metal. “Everyone, please sit,” he whispered, earphones clasped to his head. “Nobody will walk, nobody will talk.” As the order was repeated over the mountainous carpet of jagged steel and masonry, the workers settled down so that neither a foot would move nor a pebble roll. Closer to the openings from which the odor of decomposition rose, many pressed their gauze masks to their faces in a futile gesture against the stench of death.
After a moment, faintly at first, then twice sharply over the loudspeaker came the shrill, unmistakable cries of an infant. During a moment of churchlike calm, Pierre and many of the others could only weep and mutter, “He’s alive, he’s alive.” Then almost as one, from the dirt-encrusted “moles”—or tunnel diggers—to the relay lines of men removing buckets of crumbled debris, they began to laugh with relief.
For the next eight hours, they attempted to dig the infant from beneath layers of ceiling beams and broken slabs to reach what was the hospital’s third-floor infant-care ward. Despite the sophisticated cutting equipment on hand, the French and Mexican crews led by Pierre could only burrow inch by painstaking inch, removing the fragments and twisted metal mesh by the handful. Afraid of a cave-in, the slender moles—including a Mexican doctor—could be lowered only briefly one at a time through an opening under one end of a cockeyed, horizontal beam. Aided only by a flashlight and thick, cowhide gloves, each man had to snake over a ledge and down under a slab. After several hours of digging, one of the moles, his ankles and boots visible aboveground, uttered the muffled news: “There are two…a girl and a boy. I am touching the head of the girl.”
Pulled to the surface, the wild-haired, gasping man held up two fingers, then grabbed an oxygen mask for a moment’s relief. Pierre listened to the man explain that the babies were lying next to each other in battered metal cribs. Both were pinned at the chest by an aluminum lamp pole. Pierre, a veteran of such disaster relief missions as the 1980 Naples earthquake and the 1983 bombing of the French barracks in Beirut, ordered the men to chisel and scrape carefully a passage large enough to use a hack saw to cut the pole. Such a task was to take three hours more.
At this point, as he had done since he arrived a week earlier with a specially trained French government contingent of some 390 men and one woman nurse, Pierre cajoled his sleep-starved workers to be patient but to dig with speed. “To motivate men under these conditions you have to have someone like him, a charismatic, natural leader, an expert psychologist,” another French officer later said.
(Pierre is attached to an Interior Ministry rescue group that includes fire brigades, medical personnel and catastrophe workers with rescue dogs. As coordinator of two 50-man units based in Brignoles, France, he and his men had left on three hours’ notice for Mexico.)
Finally, at exactly 10 p.m., Mexican Dr. Luis Chavez was able to slip his hand under the baby girl, whose body was face down, and pull her out. Wet and sweating from having spent eight nights and nine days on a rubber mat, the naked, fragile creature was brought to the floodlit surface amid cheers and applause. Instantly she was wrapped in a sheet, with only her face and one foot exposed. Before she was rushed away for an ambulance trip to the city’s Infants Hospital, the bruised and cut infant cried out once more. “I’m very happy now,” said an effusive Pierre, peering up through the lights at the full moon. Soon afterward, another tiny, naked form was lifted from the rubble and taken away. Though the baby was seemingly lifeless, a doctor at the site detected a faint heartbeat.
Unknown to Pierre at the time, he and his men a week earlier had also rescued the infant girl’s mother, who had been trapped in the maternity ward on the fifth floor. The coincidence was discovered when the girl’s identification band was matched with the name of one of the five surviving mothers taken from the collapsed ward. When reached at the home of her in-laws with news of the rescue of her baby, Gloria Castaneda Villegas, 24, still bruised and shaken from her own experience, said, “I never lost hope. I knew deep inside that she would be saved.” Later at the intensive-care ward of the Infants Hospital, she turned away from her daughter’s woeful expression and the deep gash on her head and said, “I pray she’s well and I leave it in God’s hands. But I would also like to have her baptized…just in case.”
The next day, Saturday, in a hastily arranged ceremony at cribside, Father Avalino Francia Rubio baptized the infant “Milagros”—or Miracles. Unfortunately, Gloria Villegas was unable to attend because she was ill, and her husband, José, a taxi driver, was out working the streets for his family’s much-needed income. Friday, the day of his daughter’s rescue, was his 37th birthday. “What better gift could I get than her life,” he said.
Another who was unable to attend was Capt. Frederic Pierre. “What counts is that she’s alive,” he explained between trips to the airport where the French were loading their equipment and 33 rescue dogs into transports for the trip home. “I was thinking maybe all of us in my unit could become her godfathers. And, who knows, perhaps when she is older she could come to France to meet us. We could do the same for the boy.” Then the handsome bachelor scratched his head and added, “We didn’t come here as cowboys. We just wanted to do our job rapidly and well. We came here after fighting forest fires on the island of Corfu, and now we’re off to do avalanche prevention in the Alps. This is what we do, this is our life.” Pierre admitted that there had been some disagreement with an American rescue group but that it stemmed from frayed nerves and differences in approach. The French teams were slower and more methodical in removing rubble, and the Americans wanted to use hydraulic cranes and giant backhoes for quicker debris clearing, despite greater risk to live, trapped victims.
Back at the city’s Benito Juarez International Airport, Pierre received word that little Milagros was in “stable” condition and that the boy—sur-named Medina Hernández—might pull through, which at the time made them the last rubble-entombed survivors of the city’s disaster; the two also brought the total of those rescued by the French and their Mexican helpers to 41. “That’s fantastic,” Pierre said in a tired voice. “Now I would like to go home to my quiet village, spend a week with my parents and get back to my stamp collection. But that’s a dream. We have work to do.”
As he moved to board a plane, his eye caught a sign held by a Mexican woman in a crowd of well-wishers. Scrawled in large letters, the sign read: “Why Are You Going?” In Zorro-like fashion, Pierre smartly tapped the brim of his round military cap and reluctantly waved goodbye to the woman and to Mexico.