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Wednesday, July 17, 2024 | Back issues
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Mexico City officials offer apology for 2017 school collapse that killed 26

Officials presented a digital platform that they claimed will help parents be more aware of structural issues in Mexico City schools.

MEXICO CITY (CN) — Officials from the Mexico City government apologized Thursday for the tragic collapse of an elementary school during the earthquake that rocked the city on Sept. 19, 2017, killing 19 children and seven adults. 

“We’re here today to comply with a recommendation from the National Human Rights Commission, but we’re also here by conviction,” said Mexico City Mayor Claudia Sheinbaum at a ceremony to inaugurate a memorial to the victims in Mexico City’s Alameda del Sur park. 

“I am here to offer, as a representative of the government of Mexico City, a sincere, heartfelt and profound public apology to the victims and their families for the irreparable loss as a result of the collapse of the Rébsamen Elementary School during the earthquake on Sept. 19, 2017.”

Sheinbaum, who was head of government of the borough in which the school was located at the time of the collapse, went on to inaugurate the memorial to the 26 victims of the tragedy.

“As a woman, as a mother, as a daughter, I know that there are no words to reduce their absence or provide the necessary comfort,” she continued. “But I want you all to know that, just as I have been with you since the first moment ... if you let me, I’ll continue being close to you.”

Sheinbaum spoke after the current head of the Tlalpan borough government, Alfa González, Public Education Secretary Leticia Ramírez and Mexico City Attorney General Ernestina Godoy Ramos gave similar apologies.

The 7.1-magnitude temblor, the epicenter of which was in the neighboring state of Puebla, killed a total of 369 people in Mexico, over 200 of those in the capital. 

As with several other buildings that crumbled to the ground during the quake, accusations of corruption hounded city and school officials following the tragedy. 

In October 2020, Rébasmen owner and director Mónica García Villegas was sentenced to 31 years in prison on charges of culpable homicide. A penal court found her to have been criminally negligent for adding a fourth floor to the building in an area of the city in which the subsoil makes such constructions unsafe. An appeal by the Mexico City attorney general’s office led to an extension of that term to 36 years in August 2021. 

Two engineers involved in the construction were also found guilty of culpable homicide, while one other was found guilty of negligent homicide.

Friends and families of the victims, as well as members of the media, also heard from three parents of children who died that day. 

“In an instant, corruption killed all the hopes and dreams we had for our children, it snatched from us the experiences we’ll never share,” said Mireya Rodríguez, whose 7-year-old daughter Paola died in the collapse. “There is no measure of satisfaction that can make amends for the pain of not having our children and mothers with us.”

Rodríguez has publicly blamed Sheinbaum for the Rébsamen collapse in the past.

Francisco Quintero, whose 7-year-old son Paco was also among the victims, said: “I don’t want anyone to be in my shoes, shoes I didn’t want to put on, ones that don’t fit me. I simply cannot walk the same after I was forced to put them on. It is inadmissible to accept an apology if there are not changes.”

Quintero also joined the call from both families and government officials to ensure that such an incident does not happen again. 

Eduardo Clark, head of technology and intelligence in the mayor’s office, presented a digital platform by which parents can review the structural security of any school in the city. He said that the Rébsamen school had the proper legal paperwork for its construction, despite the extra floor, which was added in 2008. 

“The school had the documents, but today we know that they were not prepared adequately,” he said. 

Of the 2,938 school campuses in Mexico City, Clark said, 2,496 have uploaded the proper documentation to the platform, and local authorities have so far approved 1,282 of them. The city has also initiated 274 administrative sanctions against schools that have uploaded no paperwork or only one document.

Sheinbaum, who plans to run for president in 2024, could use a win in terms of infrastructure. She has been heavily criticized for deadly accidents on the Mexico City Metro during her administration. A collapse of a section of elevated train in May 2021 killed 26 passengers and wounded over 100 more. And in January, a two-train collision killed one and left 57 wounded. It was the third on Sheinbaum’s watch, and just the fourth fatal subway accident in the Metro’s 53-year history.

The government actions to make Mexico City schools safer — considering they do indeed avert future tragedies — may soothe the parents of the 19 children who died in 2017, but their personal loss will be with them for a lifetime.

“The pain has not disappeared, it has only been transformed,” said Quintero. “One can live with it, but there is no method or any kind of recognition that allows us to go back to what we were before that quake on Sept. 19, 2017, at 1:14 pm.”

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