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Sunday, September 21, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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'Miracle Children' of '85 Mexico earthquake turn 18

The Associated Press

MEXICO CITY — The "Miracle Children" are children no more.

The 14 newborns provided inspiration and hope to a devastated capital when they were rescued after being buried for days in the rubble of Mexico City's 1985 earthquake that killed about 9,500 people. This week, they are turning 18, a happy denouement to a tragic tale and perhaps a quieter sort of inspiration.

They bear wounds and scars and from the 8.1-magnitude temblor that wracked the country on Sept. 19, 1985.

Jesús Antonio Castillo was 4 days old and lying in an incubator in Juarez General Hospital awaiting a checkup for hepatitis when the quake struck at 7:19 a.m. Nine days later, rescue workers had lost hope of finding survivors and were bringing bulldozers to clear the rubble.

"My father told them, 'Hold off until day 10. My baby is waiting to be discovered,' " said Castillo as he celebrated his 18th birthday Monday.

He was found wedged underneath a crumpled ceiling column where he had spent the previous 235 hours. Castillo was the last of 16 newborns rescued from the remains of Juarez General and a second hospital leveled by the quake.

Two of the newborns pulled from the rubble later died — one of them a girl whose weak wailing led rescuers to Castillo, trapped just 8 inches away, but too feeble to cry.

"I think about her sometimes. She died, but she saved me," Castillo said. Castillo married his high-school sweetheart last year. He drives trucks for a building-materials company owned by his uncle, and he and his wife live in a two-room cinderblock home.

Castillo didn't open his eyes until nine days after he was rescued and he spent three months in intensive care before regaining enough strength to go home.

"When we first went to see him, he was in very grave condition," said Castillo's grandmother, 63-year-old Catalina Morales. "He couldn't see, couldn't make a sound, almost couldn't breathe. His legs, his arms, all of his little body was crushed."

The quake left Castillo with jagged but small scars from head to toe and a golf-ball-size indentation in his back where falling debris punctured one of his lungs.

He goes to the hospital for regular checkups once a year, but like nearly all of the other surviving newborns, he escaped with almost no long-term injuries.

Donations poured in from across Mexico and around the world in the weeks after the quake. Officials were able to establish a fund that should cover the group's medical costs until each of the survivors turns 30.

Every Sept. 19, Castillo and most of his family go to Mass to celebrate his survival.

"It still scares me to think about this tiny child trapped there without food or water," his grandmother said. "We weren't sure he'd survive, but the doctor who found him said, 'God saved him and I won't lose him.' "

Claudia Isabel Rios, who also turned 18 last week, said she has watched news footage of her rescue from the other medical center destroyed in the quake, the Federico Gomez Children's Hospital, dozens of times.

"You look at the destruction and you say, 'I can't believe I survived,' " said Rios, whose mother was in the same hospital wing but was killed when the building collapsed. "It's really a miracle, but I consider myself normal, just like all of us do."

Castillo, who has been telling journalists his story every Sept. 19 since he was old enough to speak, said he is "famous for sad reasons."

"I feel fortunate to have turned 18 and to be an adult," he said. "But I feel fortunate to have every day of my life. I received an opportunity that thousands of others didn't and I will never forget that."

Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company

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