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Tuesday January 16, 2001

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Joy turns to anguish as quake survivor fights for life

By The Associated Press

SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador - For two days and a night, the young musician lay beneath 15 feet of cinderblocks and mud, while rescuers worked desperately to pull him to safety.

But the elation when Sergio Moreno was finally freed turned to agony yesterday when heart and kidney failure left him fighting for his life.

"After so much joy when we saw him pulled out, we are again living in anguish," said his mother, Leticia del Carmen de Moreno, weeping in the hospital.

Moreno, 22, is the keyboard player for the popular Salvadoran merengue band "Grupo Algodon." But he recently decided to return to college to study computers and had bought a humble, two-story house in the Las Colinas neighborhood of Santa Tecla, just outside the capital where he would study.

Saturday morning, Moreno was painting his new home when an earthquake sent the hillside above him crashing down on top of him.

Moreno was trapped in darkness in his bathroom, with cinderblocks pinning his legs. The ironwork of a balcony shielded his upper body.

He had a cellular phone with him and dialed a friend. He got through, and within an hour rescuers were cutting through concrete to open a pathway.

It was tough work, and with the earth still trembling, the rescuers knew they could be crushed at any moment. But Jhonny ''Cannibal'' Ramos and Manuel Guzman weren't going to abandon Moreno.

''We made a pact, no matter what the risks, we weren't going to leave until we got him out,'' Guzman said.

Digging mostly with their hands, the two rescue workers tunneled down 15 feet and opened a small hole to where Moreno lay. They pushed in a garden hose, and told Moreno to put it in his mouth. Then they attached the hose to an oxygen tank so the young man could breathe.

Ramos eventually made the hole bigger, and told Moreno to stick his arm through it. Ramos inserted an IV tube to provide medicine and nourishment.

Slowly the work progressed. Aftershocks closed the hole even as the rescuers opened it, and Moreno became more and more frightened.

"You stayed here to watch me die," he told Ramos.

"No, I stayed to get you out of here," the rescuer assured him.

Finally, at 6:30 p.m. Saturday, 31 hours after the earthquake, the rescuers pulled Moreno from the rubble.

"It was an incredible joy," Ramos said. "We were all crying and hugging each other."

But out in the open, Moreno took a turn for the worse. The cinderblocks had cut off circulation to his legs, and when his blood began flowing again, his body rejected it.

His heart stopped, and paramedics got it started again. His kidneys shut down, and they gave him dialysis.

Moreno's parents, an unemployed couple from the small port of Acajutla, 55 miles to the southwest, had rushed to the capital to be near their son. They wept in the hospital waiting room.

"The rescue of Sergio was such a joy," said his father, Juan Moreno. "But then the complications began."

When he arrived at the hospital, Moreno fell into a coma. His mother talked to him, but his only response was to squeeze her hand, and then he couldn't even do that.

"Sergio my love, we're here with you," she told him, crying. "We won't leave you for a single moment."

On Monday, Moreno lay in intensive care with a neck brace and a respirator and a web of tubes snaking into his arms and torso. Doctors were preparing to amputate his left leg.

The attending nurse, who said hospital regulations prevented her from giving her name, said Moreno's heart was unstable but that his kidneys might start functioning when the shock passed. She said whether he could survive was ''a question for God.''

Guzman, the rescuer, returned home to find his wife had left him, angry that he had abandoned the family during his 40 straight hours of work.

So he went to the hospital to see how Moreno was holding up. His fatigues caked in mud and a surgical mask at his chin, he broke into tears when he saw Moreno's parents in the waiting room.

"Just seeing you moves me," Guzman said, shaking hands with Moreno's father.

The father tearfully thanked him for his efforts, and Guzman responded, "Don't thank me. Thank God."

Moreno's mother, motionless in the waiting room, said there was nothing they could do any more.

"The only thing we can do is wait," she said. "And accept."



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