Thirteen killed in Mexican quake zone helicopter crash

Santiago Jamiltepec (Mexico) (AFP) - Thirteen people were killed in southern Mexico when a minister's helicopter crash-landed on its way to the epicenter of a powerful earthquake that rattled the region, officials said Saturday.

The 7.2 magnitude quake caused only material damage when it struck late Friday, but it triggered a tragedy in the town of Santiago Jamiltepec in Oaxaca state, where the chopper landed on its side, crushing a van.

Five women, four men, and three children were killed on the spot, while another person died in hospital, the Oaxaca prosecutor's office said.

On board the UH-60 Black Hawk military helicopter were Interior Minister Alfonso Navarrete and Oaxaca state Governor Alejandro Murat, who were unharmed.

Dozens of people turned out Saturday to pay their respects to the dead, carrying candles and white flowers, as trumpets and saxophones played in tribute.

Maria Margarita Sanchez lost her son, Lorenzo Zarate, in the accident.

"I can't describe my sadness," the 63-year-old told AFP, covering her face with a scarf.

Navarrete told the Televisa TV network that the helicopter pilot lost control of the aircraft just as it was coming in to land.

A local resident who declined to give his name said many locals had been planning to spend the night outside -- at the site where the chopper crashed -- for fear of being trapped in their homes in case of aftershocks.

The officials had been heading to survey damage near the epicenter of the quake, located 37 kilometers (22 miles) from the southwestern town of Pinotepa de Don Luis, according to the US Geological Survey.

The earthquake damaged about 50 homes in Santiago Jamiltepec, as well as the town hall and church, but no one was killed, the interior ministry said.

Oaxaca state authorities opened shelters for those affected, and nearly 6,000 soldiers and federal police were deployed to help with the emergency response.

- Panic and flashbacks -

The earthquake came less than six months after two quakes killed hundreds of people in the country.

On September 7, an 8.2-magnitude earthquake shook the nation and killed 96 people, mostly in the states of Oaxaca and Chiapas.

Then on September 19 -- the 32nd anniversary of a 1985 quake that killed 10,000 -- a 7.1-magnitude quake hit the country, leaving 369 people dead.

Friday's quake triggered Mexico City's alarm system and caused buildings to sway in the capital. It was also felt in the states of Guerrero, Puebla and Michoacan.

Panicked residents flooded the streets.

"To be honest, we're all pretty upset. We start crying whenever the (earthquake) alarm goes off," 38-year-old publicist Kevin Valladolid told AFP through tears after fleeing his building in La Roma, in central Mexico City.

"We're stressed out, we have flashbacks. So we run out into the street. It's all we can do."

Patients from a nearby hospital were forced outside, some in wheelchairs or carting their IV lines. Similar scenes played out in Veracruz.

Standing in the middle of the street, her eyes glued to her fifth-floor apartment, Graciela Escalante, 72, could hardly speak.

"It was terribly strong. We barely managed to get down the stairs. It was the longest staircase in the world," she told AFP.

"We thought everything was going to collapse again."

Officials in affected states said they were inspecting buildings damaged by last year's quakes, which are especially vulnerable to collapse.

"Obviously people are afraid," said the emergency response chief for the city of Puebla, Gustavo Ariza.

Mexico sits at a spot where five tectonic plates come together, making it particularly vulnerable to earthquakes.