MEXICO — For days, the world watched with trepidation while Mexican rescuers made dramatic efforts to reach a young girl said to be buried in the rubble of a school destroyed by a magnitude 7.1 earthquake.
The child reportedly wiggled her fingers, told rescuers her name and said there were others trapped near her. First responders were said to have called for tubes, pipes and other tools to get to her before she died.
The story of “Frida Sofia” was broadcasted by news outlets, officials, and volunteer rescuers, turning it into a global drama. In fact, the story was so riveting, that it took attention away from other rescue efforts across the destroyed city.
Fox News, CBS, NBC, CNN, ABC, Reuters, the AP, USA Today… there’s a long list of media outlets that focused on the story, but DML News wasn’t one of them. Never once did we cover the story.
One reader, wondering why we did not run the story, asked via email: “Why haven’t you reported on the little girl in Mexico?”
“Where is the family?” DML News’ Dennis Michael Lynch questioned. “Too many questions left unanswered.”
On Friday morning, Mexican Navy officials shocked the world by sharing the news that the story was false.
“We want to emphasize that we have no knowledge about the report that emerged with the name of a girl,” Navy Assistant Secretary Angel Enrique Sarmiento said Thursday. “We never had any knowledge about that report, and we do not believe — we are sure — it was not a reality.”
Sarmiento said a camera lowered into the rubble of the Enrique Rebsamen School showed blood tracks where an injured person apparently dragged himself or herself out, and the only person still listed as missing was a school employee.
It turns out that the blood tracks were nothing more than what they appeared to be: just tracks. Several dead bodies have been removed from the rubble, and it could have been their fingers rescuers thought they saw moving.
Sarmiento later apologized for being so categorical, saying that if a person is still trapped, it could be a child or an adult.
“The information existing at this moment doesn’t allow us to say if it is an adult or a child,” Sarmiento said. “As long as there is the slightest possibility of someone alive, we will continue searching with the same energy.”
Twitter users quickly screamed “Fake News,” pointing out that the widespread coverage had distracted attention from real rescue efforts.
The Associated Press and others reported about the search for the girl, based on interviews with rescue workers leaving the scene who believed it was true. The workers had been toiling through the night, and the chance of rescuing the girl appeared to give them hope and purpose despite their exhaustion.
Reports about the child being trapped led to the donations of cranes, support beams, and power tools at the school site. It’s unclear if such a call to action for a fake situation affected other rescue operations going on simultaneously at a half-dozen other sites across the city.
“I don’t think there was bad faith involved,” security analyst Alejandro Hope said. “You want to believe there are children still alive down there.”
Rescuers interviewed by the AP truly believed that the girl was down there. Operating on little sleep and relying on donated foods and tools, rescuers were emotionally tied to the story, and the adrenaline it provided may have been the only thing keeping them going.
Rescue worker Raul Rodrigo Hernandez Ayala came out from the site Wednesday night and said: “The girl is alive, she has vital signs,” and added that five more children had been located alive. “There is a basement where they found children.”
“It was a confusion,” said Alfredo Padilla, a volunteer rescuer at the school. “The important thing is there are signs of life and we are working on that.”
In retrospect, the story of “Frida Sofia” had suspicious points from the start: Officials couldn’t locate any relatives of the missing girl, and no girl with that name attended the school. Rescuers said they were still separated from her by yards of rubble, but could somehow still hear her.
The story could even have political repercussions, since Education Secretary Aurelio Nuno, often mentioned as a possible presidential candidate, had repeated the story about the girl.
After a deadly earthquake in Mexico in 1985, which killed 9,500 people, news outlets reported that a 9-year-old boy had been located in the rubble days after the Sep. 19 quake. Rescuers mobilized in a huge effort to find the boy, but he apparently never existed.
“That generated anger against those who had spread the story,” Hope recalled.
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