Mexico quake toll rises as funerals crowd cemetery

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Men carry the coffin of 85-year-old Casimiro Rey, one of the victims of an 8.2 magnitude earthquake that hit Mexico's Pacific coast. AFP

JUCHITAN (Reuters) – The death toll from the massive earthquake that struck Mexico on Thursday night has risen to at least 90 after emergency services in the southern state of Oaxaca said late on Saturday there had been 71 confirmed fatalities in the state alone.

“It’s 71 [dead]. Just for Oaxaca,” said Jesus Gonzalez, a spokesman for the state civil protection authority.

At least 15 people died in the neighbouring state of Chiapas, according to local authorities, while another four deaths have also been confirmed in the state of Tabasco to the north.

The 8.1 magnitude quake that struck off the coast of Chiapas on Thursday was stronger than a devastating 1985 temblor that flattened swathes of Mexico City and killed thousands.

Relief efforts in the south continued through Saturday, with many of the people worst affected still wary of returning indoors to weakened buildings, fearing they could be brought down by
ongoing aftershocks.

Anguished mourners lined the streets of Juchitan, with coffins raised on their shoulders as they advanced slowly to a crowded cemetery on Saturday.

Many of the victims died in Juchitan, a picturesque, historic city near the coast where more than 5,000 homes were destroyed and many more left without running water or electricity.

In the Eighth Section neighbourhood, a loud drum and horn band played traditional music before the funeral of one of the 37 dead so far recovered from the wreckage.

The piercing blasts at times were drowned out by the wailing of mourners for Maximo Zuniga, a little boy whose distraught relatives said was fond of his spiky black hair and bright red tennis shoes.

The three-year-old boy was asleep when the force of the quake brought his brick bedroom walls crumbling down on top of him, his mother and an older brother. The boy died shortly after he was pulled from the rubble; the other two survived.

“I could barely see a little bit of his hair peeking out and his forehead,” said neighbour Alejandro Sanchez, who was the first to come to the stricken family’s aid. “There was a heavy wooden beam on top of all three of them and lots of dirt,” he added, as the dead boy’s uncle sobbed uncontrollably nearby.

The long, juddering tremor was felt some 800km away in Mexico City and as far south as Honduras, but outlying areas of Mexico were left relatively unscathed.

By contrast, much of the hot, muggy city of 100,000 near the Pacific coast looked as though it had been turned upside down.

Piles of rubble lay scattered across town, chunks of roofs littering the ground, and more than 300 locals were receiving care for injuries in area hospitals.

Neighbours of the Zuniga family handed out red tulips and others set off fireworks. Then the assembled crowd of about 200 mourners set out for the local cemetery, four men carrying the boy’s small white coffin draped in thin sheets of bright blue paper as the band led the procession.

Snaking through narrow streets, the colourful flower-bearing train of people in T-shirts and caps had to step over piles of debris and masonry from collapsed walls as neighbours turned out to line the route, bowing their heads as the coffin passed.

President Enrique Pena Nieto made a brief appearance on Friday afternoon in Juchitan’s devastated downtown. Pledging help to rebuild and attempting to soothe nerves, Pena Nieto declared three days of national mourning.

But his words were cold comfort for Alma Alverez, Maximo’s 48-year-old grandmother, who crossed her arms as men shovelled dirt over the small coffin.

“Pena Nieto was able to make it here in his helicopter super fast. That’s how help should be arriving, right? Exactly how he got here. But it hasn’t,” Ms Alvarez said.

Two other funerals were underway in the same cemetery as Fernando Lopez, a cousin of Maximo, stood, his head bandaged from cuts suffered protecting his grandmother from falling tiles.

“The whole town will be here in the cemetery or in the hospital. We’ll tidy up what we can clean, but we won’t be celebrating anything on September 15th,” said Mr Lopez, referring to Mexico’s independence day festivities. “We don’t have anything to celebrate.”

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