Hunt for Life in Mexico Fuels Demand for Tech to See Past Rubble

  • Leader, Camero-Tech and GSSI see more sales for their products
  • Deadliest quake in Mexico in decades killed over 300 people

At 6 a.m. on Thursday, Rafael Ortigosa stood atop the collapsed Alvaro Obregon office building in Mexico City and called a halt to his company’s search and rescue efforts.

It wasn’t the result Ortigosa, South America sales manager for Leader, a French maker of ultra-sensitive listening equipment and cameras, had hoped for. Although 28 people escaped the toppled seven-story building following a 7.1 magnitude quake on Sept. 19, by the time Ortigosa and his team arrived on the site more than a week later, no more survivors were being found. In all, 35 bodies were discovered at the site and at least eight more remained unaccounted for.

A collapsed building in Mexico City on Sept. 19.

Photographer: Alejandro Cegarra/Bloomberg

If he’d gotten there sooner, Ortigosa said, maybe a few more could have been saved. The first 72 hours after a natural disaster are crucial for bringing in rescue dogs and search equipment like the systems made by Leader, he said.

“That’s when you can still detect people alive,” he said. “After that, it is very difficult.”

In the aftermath of the deadliest quake to hit the Latin American nation in more than three decades, renewed attention is being paid to what Mexico did right and what it could have done better. Companies like Leader, Israel’s Camero-Tech Ltd. and New Hampshire-based Geophysical Survey Systems Inc., or GSSI, are playing a part in that conversation. The three firms make equipment to detect motion or sound through rubble and concrete, one of which -- Camero’s Xaver 400 system -- Mexico had acquired as part of its war on drugs.

Price tags for the gadgets can be hefty, with Leader’s Hasty device costing about $20,000 and its Scan detector at about $36,000. But all of the companies say they’ve seen demand rise since the disaster.

“The phone starts ringing because all of a sudden government officials are saying we need to be better prepared next time this happens,” said Paul Fowler, vice president of sales and marketing at GSSI. The company’s $26,000 LifeLocator can detect human movement under as much as 12 meters (39 feet) of debris.

The monster earthquake killed more than 300 people, striking 32 years to the day after another massive temblor devastated Mexico’s capital. Makers of the search and rescue systems argue that they should be the go-to tool after a building collapse or other natural disaster, but many countries still do not have the correct equipment or deploy it too slowly.

Several kilometers from the Alvaro Obregon site, teams encountered survivors using Camero’s Xaver 400. The day after the quake, army Captain Israel Velazquez Gutierrez said in a interview on El Financiero’s TV network that the handheld gadget, which is pressed up against concrete and can alert police of the number of people in a building, had detected five people still alive in a partly collapsed school building.

“Generally these systems are used in law enforcement and military scenarios,” said Amir Beeri, chief executive officer of Camero. “It’s very nice to see the migration of this technology.”

Mexico’s National Defense Secretariat, known as Sedena, and Mexico’s federal police have bought several dozen systems in the last few years, said Beeri. Sedena didn’t respond to requests for comment on whether it would buy more in the wake of the earthquake.

Before the search at the building on Alvaro Obregon was called off, one of the rescue workers, clutching the handheld monitor from the Leader Hasty device, signaled to everyone at the site to be quiet. But as he watched for signs of life coming from the sensors to the monitor, there was nothing. 

— With assistance by Nacha Cattan

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