In the early morning Friday, after hours of frantic digging throughout the night, the first cheer came from the men and women atop the rubble of the collapsed department store.
Minutes later, Maria Eugenia Lire, 37, was gently lowered from the mound of broken concrete, the first of six people to emerge Friday from what could have been their tomb.For more than 12 hours, workers - sometimes burrowing with their bare hands - had tried to reach her as she and the others cried out for help from beneath the wreckage of what had been Brownsville's Amigos Store.
The store, packed with shoppers avoiding the deluge outside, collapsed at 2 p.m. Thursday, as a violent thunderstorm swept over the town, pelting it with rain and lightning and flooding the streets. Witnesses said that the three-story corner building began to sway and, in seconds, dropped as if it had been hit by a bomb.
Rescue workers who labored in dehydrating heat and cramped quarters to pull Maria Eugenia Lire from the wreckage found that she had written on a 1-by-8-inch board where she was trapped and the words: "Christo es el camino" (Christ is the way).
Through the night and into Friday, the death toll had risen at the disaster site, less than 100 yards from the downtown international bridge to Mexico. It went from eight on Thursday to 15 late Friday evening. Police said 47 other people were injured, not including the six who were dug out alive Friday.
The Rev. Thomas Pincelli twice went into the hole dug by rescuers to comfort those trapped below.
"The hole was extremely small," he said. "When I first went in, there were screams and they pleaded with us to get them out. We asked them not to lose hope, that there were a lot of people working up here to free them. I could see their hands coming from the rubble."
The Rev. Pincelli, of Our Lady of Guadalupe Church, left a rosary with one of the women, and he said it seemed to calm her. When he returned, he placed three rosaries and a crucifix in the hands of others who remained trapped.
"They just kept pleading with us to get them out," he said.
But the next rescue was hours away. Because the sun was already turning hot, even in the early morning, workers erected a yellow-and-white canopy over the dig area. And then, almost immediately, came the second set of cheers as a paramedic clutched a small girl, Laura Acosta, in his arms and climbed off the heap. It was 8:55 a.m.
Pamela Downing, a spokeswoman for the city, said later that the time interval between the first and second rescue had been so long because the 2-year-old's head was wedged between two pieces of concrete.
Down the street, Ramon Barbosa was waiting in line with a string of dump trucks, ready to haul off debris. He and the other volunteers had been doing this for 16 hours.
At 9:16 a.m., there was a third cheer. Nine-year-old Jorge Lire, Maria Eugenia's son, was lifted from the wreckage. He had a broken leg. Exactly 20 minutes later, a heavy-set woman was brought down from the pile of twisted steel and broken brick. The police said she was Rosalinda Silva, 46, of Monterrey, Texas.
There were two more sets of cheers on Friday morning. One was when workers pulled up Yvette Lire, Jorge's 13-year-old cousin. The last was when an 8-year-old named Denise Carrera was rescued.
The pocket of the living had been cleared and rescuers did not know where to turn next. Dogs trained to sniff out humans had no luck. Navy experts, brought in to use sensitive listening devices, could detect no human sounds in the debris.
Frank Pakuszewski, the manager of the Amigos Store until he retired two years ago, stood and watched the crews and the volunteers and the heap that had once been a major part of his world. "The happiest 17 years of my life I spent there," he said. "I don't know how it could have happened. The people who built it are reputable builders." He said he talked to the brother of owner Bernard Levin earlier in the day. Miraculously, all 10 employees at the store had survived.
As morning crept into afternoon, and hope of finding anyone else alive grew slim, those in charge of the rescue work decided to use heavier equipment to remove the debris.
Dr. Peter Plantes, who was in charge of medical operations at the site, said his main concern now was for the rescue workers, who were being limited to 30-minute shifts in the muggy, 90-degree heat.
In the background, the big machinery started to rumble and dozens of volunteers waited to help.