MEXICO CITY – A magnitude 7.1 earthquake stunned central Mexico on Tuesday, killing at least 139 people as buildings collapsed in plumes of dust. Thousands fled into the streets in panic, and many stayed to help rescue those trapped.
Dozens of buildings collapsed into mounds of rubble or were severely damaged in in densely populated parts of Mexico City and nearby states. Mayor Miguel Angel Mancera said 44 buildings collapsed in the capital alone.
The quake came less than two weeks after another quake left 90 dead in the country’s south, and it occurred as Mexicans commemorated the anniversary of a 1985 quake that killed thousands.
Luis Felipe Puente, head of the national Civil Defence agency, tweeted Tuesday night that the confirmed death toll had risen to 139.
His tweet said 64 people died in Morelos state, just south of Mexico City, though local officials reported only 54. In addition, 36 were killed in the capital, 29 in Puebla state, nine in the State of Mexico and one in Guerrero state, he said.
The count did not include one death that officials in the southern state of Oaxaca reported earlier as quake-related.
Mancera, the Mexico City mayor, said 50 to 60 people were rescued alive by citizens and emergency workers in the capital. Authorities said at least 70 people in the capital had been hospitalized for injuries.
The federal interior minister, Miguel Angel Osorio Chong, said authorities had reports of people possibly still being trapped in collapsed buildings. He said search efforts were slow because of the fragility of rubble.
“It has to be done very carefully,” he said. And “time is against us.”
At one site, reporters saw onlookers cheer as a woman was pulled from the rubble. Rescuers immediately called for silence so that they could listen for others who might be trapped.
Mariana Morales, a 26-year-old nutritionist, 26, was one many who spontaneously participated in rescue efforts.
She wore a paper face mask and her hands were still dusty from having joined a rescue brigade to clear rubble from a building that fell in a cloud of dust before her eyes, about 15 minutes after the quake.
WATCH: Office workers, residents evacuate buildings central Mexico hit by major earthquake
Morales said she was in a taxi when the quake struck, and she out and sat on a sidewalk to try to recover from the scare. Then, just a few yards away, the three-story building collapsed.
Gala Dluzhynska was taking a class with 11 other women on the second floor of a building on the trendy Alvaro Obregon street when the quake struck and window and ceiling panels fell as the building began to tear apart.
She said she fell in the stairs and people began to walk over her, before someone finally pulled her up.
“There were no stairs anymore. There were rocks,” she said.
They reached the bottom only to find it barred. A security guard finally came and unlocked it.
8.1 Earthquake hits Mexico on Sept. 7
The quake caused buildings to sway sickeningly in Mexico City and sent people throughout the city fleeing from homes and offices, and many people remained in the streets for hours, fearful of returning to the structures.
Alarms blared and traffic stopped around the Angel of Independence monument on the iconic Reforma Avenue.
The U.S. Geological Survey said the magnitude 7.1 hit at 1:14 p.m. (2:15 p.m. EDT) and it was centred near the Puebla state town of Raboso, about 76 miles (123 kilometres) southeast of Mexico City.
WATCH: People flee to streets after earthquake strikes central Mexico
Puebla Gov. Tony Gali tweeted that there had been damaged buildings in the city of Cholula including collapsed church steeples.
Earlier in the day workplaces across the city held readiness drills on the anniversary of the 1985 quake, a magnitude 8.0 shake, which killed thousands of people and devastated large parts of Mexico City.
Market stall vendor Edith Lopez, 25, said she was in a taxi a few blocks away when the quake struck. She said she saw glass bursting out of the windows of some buildings. She was anxiously trying to locate her children, whom she had left in the care of her disabled mother.
Local media broadcast video of whitecap waves churning the city’s normally placid canals of Xochimilco as boats bobbed up and down.
Mexico City’s international airport suspended operations and was checking facilities for any damage.
Much of Mexico City is built on former lakebed, and the soil can amplify the effects of earthquakes centred hundreds of miles away.
The new quake appears to be unrelated to the magnitude 8.1 temblor that hit Sept. 7 off Mexico’s southern coast and which also was felt strongly in the capital.
U.S. Geological Survey seismologist Paul Earle noted that the epicenters of the two quakes are 400 miles (650 kilometres) apart and most aftershocks are within 100 kilometres.
WATCH: Cars shake and rattle as earthquake strikes central Mexico
There have been 19 earthquakes of magnitude 6.5 or larger within 250 kilometres of Tuesday’s quake in the past century, Earle said.
Earth usually has about 15 to 20 earthquakes this size or larger each year, Earle said.
Initial calculations show that more than 30 million people would have felt moderate shaking from Tuesday’s quake. The US Geological Survey predicts “significant casualty and damage are likely and the disaster is potentially widespread.”
WATCH: Video taken inside office building in Mexico City shows employees reacting as quake hit