Latin America

EXCLUSIVE: Collapsed school in Mexico earthquake was under investigation for construction irregularities

Several modifications were made to the building, such as the construction of a large apartment on the roof with marble and steel in which, according to the neighbors, the director of the school lived.

The Enrique Rebsamen private school in the south of Mexico City, which became a symbol of the tragedy that followed the Sept 19 earthquake, was under investigation in 2014 and 2015 for breaches of building codes, officials have told Univision Investiga.

The irregularities could be related to several modifications that were made to the building that collapsed, leaving 19 children and seven adults dead. Among these alterations is the construction of a spacious apartment on the roof where the school's principal, Mónica García Villegas, lived with a relative. Univision News tried to contact García Villegas but was unable to locate her.

Univision News requested an analysis by a civil engineer, Alberto López Acevedo, who pointed out alterations to the building made between 2009 and 2016.

"In an image of 2009 one can clearly see a small room on the roof, but if we go to images of 2015, there is clearly already an important extension of that room. And if we go to 2016 you see even a kind of roof garden,'' said the engineer.

Univision Investiga obtained exclusive photographs of the interior of the apartment, taken during the rescue works which show windows, doors and a roof terrace made of steel and marble flooring. However, in the historical images of the building there is no sign of reinforcements being made to the facade or the supporitng columns, the engineer pointed out.

"All this adds weight. It is more than evident that the structure was not prepared for the addition of an extra floor," said López Acevedo.

A senior military source with engineering knowledge, who requested anonymity, told Univision Investiga that it was not normal for a structure of that size to exist on the school.

"Normally the law allows us to build a room for the night caretaker, but not something that big," the military source said.

The investigations took place during the previous administration of the Tlalpan municipality where the school is located. Univision requested an interview with Claudia Sheinbaum, a current councilwoman in Tlalpan who is running to head the Mexico City government, but her media respresenative said the request was still being considered when this article was published.

Modifications

Public questions of possible irregularities in the building were first raised by a video that went viral and caught an anonymous rescuer talking on a cell phone about structural flaws he had seen in the building as the debris was removed. The video has more than 100,000 visits and the rescuer has received both compliments and insults.

Univision was able to locate the rescuer, Horacio Espíndola, a business administrator and political activist who says he studied engineering. Espindola appeared on a Televisa broadcast from the site of the tragedy and was seen instructing a colleague to ask the public for help with donating tools to remove the debris. He says he was one of the first to reach the site of the disaster.

"This should not have happened. There should not have been such a number of dead children. Because the infrastructure was not in a condition to host a school. The place was obsolete," Espindola explained.

Several neighbors in the area and parents of the school told Univision in private that it was known that the principal lived on the top floor of the administrative building.

Rescuers who participated in the removal of survivors and the dead bodies alleged that the school had no emergency exit signs. One of them said that the backyard staircase was "a trap."

"It needed an emergency exit for the children. The staircase exit led to a closed patio," said Alfredo, a rescuer who asked that his last name not be published.

Erick Soto, a local transit officer in the area was one of the first to reach the site after the earthquake. He also noticed the lack of a proper rear emergency exit.

"Those kids would have survived if they stayed in their classrooms," he added, standing by a large candlelit cross which illuminated a corner of white floral wreaths in the street next to the school.

In the days following an earlier Sept 7 earthquake which had its epicenter in the southern state of Chiapas, authorities from the Ministry of Public Education announced that comprehensive reviews would be conducted in all schools. So far, the ministry has not released any documents indicating whether the revisions were carried out at Rebsamen.

Daily Camacaro, Azul Alvarez and Juan Cooper contributed to this report.