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'You Gave Me Life Again': Rare Rescues Drive Hope in Devastated Ecuador

Hundreds are dead and thousands are homeless after the devastating earthquake in Ecuador, but rescuers say, 'We always have hope.'
Image: Honduran rescue crew in Manta, Ecuador
Members of a Honduran rescue crew pray during their search for earthquake victims Wednesday in Manta, Ecuador.Luis Acosta / AFP -- Getty Images

MANTA, Ecuador — Pablo Cordova's wife had already ordered his coffin.

Cordova was among thousands of people still missing two days after a monster earthquake shattered Ecuador over the weekend. His wife was working with his employer to coordinate his eventual burial when she got a phone call. It was Pablo.

At first, Cordova told NBC News on Wednesday, she thought it was an awful joke. Then she quickly shifted gears, alerting authorities who were able to find Cordova buried alive Monday afternoon in the hotel where he worked in nearby Portoviejo.

Related: Ecuador President Will Raise Taxes to Fund Earthquake Recovery

"Colombian rescuers from Bogotá showed up, and they pulled me out," Cordova said. "When they made the first hole, I saw light and said, 'My God, you gave me life again.' I was born again."

Rescue workers remove rubble Wednesday as they search for earthquake victims in Manta, Ecuador.Luis Acosta / AFP — Getty Images

Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa said Wednesday that 525 people are confirmed dead after Saturday's magnitude-7.8 earthquake. As many as 20,000 others are now homeless because of the temblor. Meanwhile, cemeteries and funeral homes are full and running out of caskets.

Where there is even any organized help at all, lines stretch for miles, with hundreds, if not thousands, waiting for help — many saying they haven't eaten or had clean water in days. Cordova told NBC News that he conserved his own urine to help with the thirst while he yearned for help in the hotel room.

"I was in a state, how do I explain, yoga-like," he said. "My brain was the only thing functioning."

Survivors like Pablo Cordova are why people like Quito fire Capt. Henry Silva continue to labor in this crumbled city, even as it continues to be hammered by large aftershocks. He helped rescue 11 people from the mangled mess of Manta's main shopping center, where some survivors were pulled through a small hole from a room where they'd been pinned beneath tons of debris.

Related: Ecuador Rattled By Biggest Aftershock Since Quake That Killed 525

Silva told NBC News the emotional and dangerous work inevitably made him think of his own wife and 11-year-old daughter.

"For us, we are always worried about our families, because we also leave them vulnerable," he said. "But we have to come, and psychologically we have to leave them to be able to be here to help.

A boy gets safe water from a police officer Wednesday in Manta, Ecuador.Juan Cevallos / AFP -- Getty Images

"The saddest thing for a rescuer is to find children, because we have children," he said. "We are always dependent on our families."

Correa — who has already visited Manta, a fishing city on Ecuador's western coast, for a firsthand look at rescue efforts — said he and the nation would be eternally grateful to the thousands of troops, relief agency workers and rescue crew members like Silva, "who have not slept" since Saturday.

"Always, we always have hope," Silva said. "We never lose hope. ... This is our profession. When we find someone, it makes our job and our profession a success."

Still, Correa announced Wednesday that so far only 54 people have been rescued alive. That makes Pablo Cordova one of the very, very lucky few.

And as for his now-unneeded coffin, Cordova said, "We already donated it to a man."

Members of a Honduran rescue crew pray during their search for earthquake victims Wednesday in Manta, Ecuador.Luis Acosta / AFP -- Getty Images
Jacquellena Carrero contributed.