The story captivated a country still reeling from catastrophe: rescue workers were labouring round the clock to free a 12-year-old girl who had miraculously survived Mexico’s devastating earthquake, but remained trapped in the ruins of her school.
Television channels broadcast breathless updates describing how the rescuers were inching closer to the cavity where Frida Sofía was buried alive.
Naval officers leading the rescue effort told reporters that she had been seen to wiggle her fingers, that she had taken shelter under a granite table and was in contact with schoolmates.
But on Thursday, hope turned to heartache – and then anger – as the story fell apart: there was no student named Frida Sofía; there was no girl trapped in the ruins of Enrique Rebsámen school.
After two days when it seemed that a rescue could come at any moment, the navy assistant secretary, Enrique Sarmiento, abruptly announced that all the school’s children had been accounted for.
“We want to emphasize that we have no knowledge about the report that emerged with the name of a girl,” Sarmiento added. “We do not believe – we are sure – it was not a reality.”
The announcement came just hours after a different navy official had told El Financiero TV that rescue workers were in contact with the girl.
The revelation that there never was a Frida Sofía infuriated many Mexicans, who felt they’d been fed a false narrative of hope by press and public officials.
“People are angry,” said Esteban Illades, editor of the Mexican magazine Nexos. “Frida was the story.”
Online, many vented anger at the authorities. But they also targeted the media – especially the broadcasting giant Televisa. Some compared the episode to the story of Monchito, a nine-year-boy whose incredible rescue from the rubble of Mexico City’s devastating 1985 earthquake was soon revealed to be a hoax.
But Televisa anchors also expressed frustration: “The federal government always told us there was a girl and they were about to rescue her. Now they changed their version. Outrageous,” tweeted anchor Carlos Loret de Mola.
During the rescue, soldiers and marines with specialised equipment such as heat sensors and sensitive microphones searched the school site for signs of life – and claimed to have found Frida Sofía. Rescue workers were said to be feeding her milk down plastic tubes.
But then the discrepancies started to emerge: no distraught family members came to the school; none of the surviving staff or students knew anyone of that name.
Late on Wednesday, cheers broke out at the site of the ruined school as a rumour spread that two students had been saved.
But soon after, a group of volunteer first responders known as the Moles – famed for burrowing through rubble – left the school saying there had been a difference of opinion with naval officials who had taken over the rescue effort.
In the end, that effort was unnecessary.
The anger prompted by the episode was the product of widespread disgust with public officials and media outlets which are routinely accused of fudging statistics and downplaying Mexico’s problems.
“We already have extremely low levels of interpersonal and institutional trust,” said Rodolfo Soriano-Nuñez, a sociologist in Mexico City.