the Mexico City quake ‘survivor’ who was never there

The story of a child supposedly alive in the rubble of the Enrique Rebsámen school gripped the country – until it became clear she didn’t exist

A priest holds an outdoor Catholic Mass near the collapsed Enrique Rebsámen school. Photograph: Rebecca Blackwell/AP

The story captivated a country still reeling from catastrophe: rescue workers were labouring round the clock to free a 12-year-old girl who had miraculously survived Mexico’s devastating earthquake, but remained trapped in the ruins of her school.

Television channels broadcast breathless updates describing how the rescuers were inching closer to the cavity where Frida Sofía was buried alive.

Naval officers leading the rescue effort told reporters that she had been seen to wiggle her fingers, that she had taken shelter under a granite table and was in contact with schoolmates.

But on Thursday, hope turned to heartache – and then anger – as the story fell apart: there was no student named Frida Sofía; there was no girl trapped in the ruins of Enrique Rebsámen school.

After two days when it seemed that a rescue could come at any moment, the navy assistant secretary, Enrique Sarmiento, abruptly announced that all the school’s children had been accounted for.

“We want to emphasize that we have no knowledge about the report that emerged with the name of a girl,” Sarmiento added. “We do not believe – we are sure – it was not a reality.”

The announcement came just hours after a different navy official had told El Financiero TV that rescue workers were in contact with the girl.

The revelation that there never was a Frida Sofía infuriated many Mexicans, who felt they’d been fed a false narrative of hope by press and public officials.

“People are angry,” said Esteban Illades, editor of the Mexican magazine Nexos. “Frida was the story.”

Online, many vented anger at the authorities. But they also targeted the media – especially the broadcasting giant Televisa. Some compared the episode to the story of Monchito, a nine-year-boy who was the focus of a massive rescue attempt from the rubble of Mexico City’s devastating 1985 earthquake, but turned out not to have existed.

Televisa anchors also expressed frustration: “The federal government always told us there was a girl and they were about to rescue her. Now they changed their version. Outrageous,” tweeted anchor Carlos Loret de Mola.

During the rescue, soldiers and marines with specialised equipment such as heat sensors and…

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