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CNN NEWSROOM

Rescuers Search Frantically for Quake Survivors; Hurricane Maria Knocks Out Power in Puerto Rico; Mexico Quake Death Toll Rises to 230; Russia Investigation; White House Grapples with North Korea Threats; Hurricane Aid Flights to Dominica to Begin. Aired 12-1a ET

Aired September 21, 2017 - 00:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


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[00:01:37] JOHN VAUSE, CNN ANCHOR: Hello. We'd like to welcome our viewers in the United States and all around the world. I'm John Vause reporting live from Mexico City where for almost 36 hours now rescuers have been digging through debris in a frantic search for survivors of that 7.1 magnitude earthquake. It destroyed so many buildings not just here in the capital but across the region. There has been a frantic search effort underway at one school here in particular for a little girl, who they believe is still alive.

Meantime Hurricane Maria is now a Category 2 skirting the Dominican Republic at this hour and in its wake the storm has left Puerto Rico completely in the dark snapping 100 percent of power on the island and it could be months before the electricity is back on.

But we will start now with the latest from the earthquake here. Rescue crews say they have made contact with a little girl who's been trapped beneath the rubble of a school not far from where I am just a few buildings away. That building collapsed in the force of the earthquake on Tuesday.

Workers and volunteers have been using whatever they can. They've been using their hands, shovels, axes. They've been taking debris away, hand by hand passing it from one person to the other using shopping trolleys as well.

But amid this sign of hope there is also this desperate, grim realization that at least 21 other children were killed when the school came toppling down.

This rescue effort here at the school has been a scene repeated not just here in Mexico City but also in across the quake zone of central Mexico. The government says at least 230 people have been killed. That number is expected to rise.

For the very latest now we get -- for the very latest now here is CNN's Ed Lavandera.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ED LAVANDERA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It's not until you stand this close to the collapsed school building that the horrific reality of this scene sinks in. We weave our way in and around hundreds of rescue workers who have descended on this elementary school to save anyone who might still be trapped in side the rubble.

This is the area where crews have been frantically working for the last 24 hours trying to pull out survivors. Look at the impact here of the building crushing that car there. And you can see all of the workers that have been here for more than 24 hours now trying to find survivors.

This is the school where several dozen children were killed as the building collapsed down to the ground here. Speaking quietly because a lot of crews have been working and they're trying to hear for sounds of people inside the building.

We're told that there might be a young girl they believe is still alive inside. And that's what these efforts are for right now.

In the courtyard area of the school, hundreds of workers are moving debris away from the school under a banner that reads "unity creates strength".

Then a whistle cuts through the air and everyone stops -- total silence. This gives rescue teams crawling through the collapsed structure the chance to listen for survivors.

You can hear the muffled sound of rescue workers as they work inside that collapsed part of the building.

The work inside the building is treacherous. Wooden pillars have been brought in to fortify what's left of the school.

[00:04:55] Hector Mendez is part of a volunteer brigade of rescue workers known as "The Moles". He says his team arrived on the scene an hour after the school collapsed. And the 70-year-old volunteer believes more people will be pulled out alive.

Do you think you'll be able to find children alive in there?

HECTOR MENDEZ, VOLUNTEER RESCUE WORKER: Yes, because the children the most times they got more chance to live than we old people.

LAVANDERA: You think so? Even a day after?

MENDEZ: Yes. They want to be alive. And I know that. That's why we're here working so hard.

LAVANDERA: Dramatic scenes are unfolding on the streets surrounding the school grounds. That's where we found a collection of names strung together on paper and clear tape. This is where Daniel Casals (ph) and a small team of volunteers help keep track of the names of the teachers and students who were inside the school.

DANIEL CASALS, VOLUNTEER RESCUE WORKER: This -- this (AUDIO GAP) are the people dead. And that's for opportunity (ph).

LAVANDERA: Most of the buildings surrounding the school withstood the force of the earthquake. Only this portion cratered in on itself and rescue workers vowed to continue the search as long as it takes.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

VAUSE: Ed Lavandera reporting there.

And joining me now is CNN reporter Simon Ostrovsky. So Simon -- you've been here for most of the day. And obviously the focus now is on not just rescuing this little girl trying to get her out of the school, but in the meantime just trying to keep her alive. And there have been some incredible efforts to make sure that she is alive when they get that debris off her.

SIMON OSTROVSKY, CNN REPORTER: Absolutely. I mean what I can tell you about it is that it has been grueling. They've been working on this since at least 7:00 in the morning. And literally thousands of people have been involved.

We've seen them passing oxygen tanks into rubble trying to get it through holes that they've actually created themselves throughout the day.

And the main effort right now is focused on widening that hole so that it's big enough so that they can start to pull people out. But at the same time so that the structure doesn't collapse and hurt anybody who still might be alive over there.

VAUSE: And the mere fact that they found her alive with these thermal imaging equipment and there were some reports that there were text messages being exchanged which means some of the kids and the parents (ph) -- the kids being trapped under the rubble.

OSTROVSKY: Well, we haven't gotten confirmation about the text messages, but the thermal images did seem to show that there may be at least three people alive.

They're focusing primarily on the nine-year-old girl up until now because the education minister has come out and said specifically that their rescue efforts were focused around her today.

They rescued 11 people yesterday. Today it's been much worse. They haven't been able to rescue anyone yet, and we're already coming close to midnight. They're probably going to continue through the night.

VAUSE: Yes. There seems so much of a national focus right now on this one little girl and this rescue. It seems to have become a symbol for all the other rescues taking place across the country.

OSTROVSKY: Absolutely. I mean, you know, just in Mexico City there's about 40 buildings that have collapsed and there's people trapped underneath so many of them.

And this scene is playing out all across the city. Remember this is the third or second largest city in the world, so there's so many people here who have wanted to volunteer to help.

And if you drive around town and you see the rubble, you'll see crowds of people doing whatever they can just as you were describing before -- passing rubble out, bringing equipment in, carrying food around.

It's really brought Mexico together. And it's amazing to see the unity that this has created here.

VAUSE: And there have been people pulled out from under the rubble. I think the mayor said as of midday there was more than 50 people had actually been pulled alive from the rubble in various parts of the city.

But clearly as time continues the President himself said, you know, this is a race against time. They need to get to these people. The longer this goes on, you know, the less chance these people have of surviving.

OSTROVSKY: We're getting close to 40 hours. And you know, standard operation after an earthquake like this is to give up the rescue efforts after 72 hours. So they've still got a long slog ahead of them. And of course, for the people trapped below, their last hope is the people who are trying to get them out.

VAUSE: And you mentioned the number of buildings which have actually collapsed here. Ok -- this is a call for silence right now to be quiet because they may have heard something. They need everyone to be quiet for the rescuers on the rubble which is not far from our location here trying to listen for any signs of life beneath the rubble where this little nine-year-old girl is trapped right now maybe with others.

So we'll lower or voices a little bit as they continue with that.

But with regards to the other buildings, which have come crashing down, the mayor revised that number downwards which is good. But there's also concern, and at this point, I guess, no way of knowing how many other buildings have been compromised, what the damage has been sustained, how many of these builds may not be safe.