The Deadly Anniversary:
A Recount of What was
By: Arthur Fields
September 19th, 2017:
Mexico City woke up to the 32nd anniversary of its most devastating natural disaster in recent history: an 8.1 magnitude earthquake that brought hundreds of buildings to the ground, killed thousands, and left as many as a quarter million people homeless and unable to recover.
I was 3 years old back when that earthquake struck in 1985. The only memory I have is that of an adult holding me in his arms before leaving my grandmother’s house. I learned later on that he was my father. The shaking of the ground was so strong that everyone had to hold on to the walls just to keep walking. Some people had to crawl their way out of their homes.
Since it struck at 7:19 in the morning, most people were still home getting ready for work or waiting for their children to prepare for school. The number of casualties quickly rose to the tens of thousands.
The most affected areas were closest to downtown, where 500 years ago the lake of Texcoco was located. The soil on old lake beds amplifies seismic shockwaves, creating resonance effects that cause buildings to sway much stronger and faster than they normally would.
No one wanted to relive the tragedy of ‘85. It took years for the whole city to recover. People were traumatized by the event and each time a new earthquake struck, it was common to see the elderly get upset to the point of having a nervous breakdown. Evacuation drills became the norm to create a culture of prevention, so every September 19th the whole city runs evacuation drills at schools, office buildings and residential areas.
It was 1 in the afternoon. I was studying at one of the lounges on campus where students and professors go to spend time between classes. There were around 20 people there. The usual sense of peace and quiet was present as each of us kept focused on our individual matters.
Just 2 hours earlier, the whole campus ran evacuation drills according to protocol. It usually takes 10 to 15 minutes before things go back to normal each September 19th at 11 am. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary that day.
Suddenly, I felt the ground start to shake. The sofa I was sitting on began to vibrate up and down, like it does when a heavy loaded truck drives by. Almost at the same time, everyone in the lounge looked around at each other, silently asking the same question: “Is this an earthquake?” Immediately we all stood and left the area as fast as we could. It shocked us to the point that we left our belongings behind – wallets, bags and laptops mostly.
The tremors intensified. The roaring footsteps of hundreds of students evacuating the upper floors, together with the powerful noise that could be heard from the structure shaking, was enough to make anyone feel nervous at that moment.
I noticed the pipes that hung from ceiling swaying. Dust and bits of rubble fell from above. Although really powerful, the quake wasn’t strong enough to keep us from standing or walking. Everyone was able to evacuate safely.
One minute after the tremor started, we could still feel the ground swaying. Hundreds of us gathered by one of the campus gates. Everyone got their cellphones out, worriedly trying to reach their loved ones, but the whole network had collapsed as it usually does with strong earthquakes.
University City (where campus is) was constructed on top of volcanic rock, the strongest type of ground you can find in Mexico City. Yet we still experienced major shaking. That could only mean things were seriously bad downtown. My family lives a couple miles from one of the most earthquake-sensitive areas, and I really feared for their wellbeing.
As we waited to be allowed back in, I sat next to a couple of students who had tuned into their cellphone’s radio. The first news reports started to circulate. There was word of a fire and dust clouds rising from several points in the city. My fear intensified as that meant buildings had collapsed.
Finally we were told we could re-enter the building only to grab our belongings. Classes had been cancelled for the whole campus and we were asked to leave. Back in the lounge, I saw other packing their things up so I offered a ride to anyone who lived nearby to where I was going. Two professors joined me.
The 3 of us got in my car and we kept trying to get some phone reception. 20 minutes had passed and I still couldn’t reach my family or friends. I turned on the radio and the news revealed the gravity of the situation. A whole supermarket had collapsed. At least 3 buildings in Condesa were leveled. Many others were reported severely damaged or on the verge of collapse. I thought of a dear friend who had just moved to that area.
One of the professors, who was around my age, worried for his mother’s wellbeing. He said she lived in Condesa too. Since it was impossible for him to contact her, I tried to comfort him by telling him to wait until we could actually confirm anything.
Roads had collapsed all over the city. It took us over an hour to drive 3 miles. That same professor asked me to drop him off so he could join his brother to go check on their mom. I was left in the car with the other professor whose home was located near to where many reports were coming from. He was able to reach some of his relatives who told him everyone was safe.
We eventually made it to a main avenue, which I take every day on my way home. You could tell something wasn’t right. Crowds were gathered on top of the overpass bridges and everyone was either pointing or looking to the left. Finally we saw a white, 5-story building with its entire right wing collapsed to the ground. At a distance it seemed as if the walls were made of cardboard. They looked so thin and fragile.
The two of us were shocked. We had never seen something like this, and weeks later we learned that building had been constructed against safety regulations. After seeing this, I made haste to reach my family. We had never seen something like this. Luckily, past that point there was no traffic. I reached home in less than 5 minutes.
I ran in to check how everyone was. My mother told me they were all ok. My sister, father and other relatives were fine, but she was clearly in distress. She told me it was the most horrible earthquake she had experienced in her life, much worse than the one in 1985 (which she perfectly remembers). But knowing they were alright, I got back in the car to drop my other friend, and it took us another hour to reach his district.
On our way through the surrounding areas, we saw most building with broken windows and some with cracks in the walls running from the ground up. Shattered glass covered the streets and people everywhere were still in shock, looking around trying to wake up from what seemed to be a very bad dream.
We both noticed the damages getting less and less, and by the time we reached his building everything looked normal. With a smile, he shook my hand and thanked me for the ride, and I told him to please be safe. Then I tried to reach my friend Meredith as fast as I could. I was worried that 2 hours had passed and I still couldn’t reach her. There was heavy traffic everywhere, but each red light gave me the opportunity to look around and assess the damage.
It wasn’t just me; other drivers turned their heads to grasp how severe things really were. People on the streets shared a sense of concern. While some tried to go back to their daily lives, others just stood motionless, thinking and wondering about what had just happened.
As I got closer and closer to where my friend lives, I finally received a message from her. She had moved to the apartment of a friend who was not too away. Everything had broken in her apartment. The building had withstood heavy damages and they were asked to evacuate, but she was safe. Although I could relax after hearing from her, I felt the need to help somehow.
Volunteers were already at the scene of a collapsed building near me, according to news reports. They were civilians who didn’t think twice and joined the collective effort to rescue survivors from the rubble. There was one building in particular that was mentioned a lot in the news. It was just 6 blocks away. I decided to go there, but it would be difficult as police and military had already started redirecting traffic to other areas.
I had to drive through several streets in my attempt to reach this area. I eventually came across a high school that showed damages in the corner. The top floor of a 2-story tower had collapsed to the ground, destroying 2 cars and breaking the iron gates that surrounded the complex. Thankfully no lives were lost, but the rubble and debris covered ground.
I soon realized it would be impossible to reach the most affected zones by car. I decided to park my car and keep walking instead. I grabbed my wallet, cellphone and some food and headed back towards Alvaro Obregon. Since my phone battery was almost empty, I couldn’t tune into the radio for news and had to rely on reports from people on the ground.
I noticed a crowd walking down the closest avenue. I followed and eventually reached the place where the crowds were meeting. A man who looked about 50 years old was in distress, screaming and cursing at the sky while grabbing his head with both hands. I can only assume he witnessed the collapse of one of the buildings nearby. Two policemen were preventing anyone from getting past that point. They stopped me too, even though I told them I was there to help.
Eventually I reached Insurgentes which is an important avenue that divides the Roma and Condesa districts, both of which were severely affected. I came across a zone where some tents were being set up. A couple trucks, the kind you see unloading merchandise at convenience stores, arrived loaded with cases of bottled water and saline solution.
Within a couple hours, the people of Mexico city had organized entire networks helping to distribute supplies and food to every volunteer who was aiding the rescue efforts. It wasn’t just trucks – cars were also being used for transport. Collection centers were improvised with folding tables and plastic chairs.
Several people were already unloading the trucks and opening up their backpacks to fit as many bottles as they could. It was overwhelming. I hurried and opened mine, even though I could only fit 8 bottles. We were told to deliver everything to Condesa, 3 blocks away. So together we jogged there, some carrying full gallons of water and boxes with food on their backs.
We made it to Amsterdam Avenue, well known for its beautiful promenade surrounded by benches, coffee houses, and restaurants. What used to be a peaceful location to spend the day was now packed with hundreds of people rushing to get to affected areas.
I saw a small collection center – just two folding tables outside the garage of a house receiving supplies. A woman with her teenage son were unpacking and sorting the goods. You could just smell the adrenaline in the air. The speed at which all of us moved made it clear that time was precious that day. There was a communal urgency – a need to support in any way we could.
The pressure of others waiting pushed us to move as quickly as we could. The teenage son helped me to unload my backpack and as soon as I turned around a big crowd jogged past, some of them carrying long wooden beams, shovels and trolleys. I joined in and asked where they were headed. Another building had collapsed 3 blocks away, and huge blocks of cement, broken beams and shattered glass blocked the main entrance.
It was difficult to understand what was happening here, and it took me a couple minutes to realize this wasn’t a house but a collapsed building. Half of it came all the way down while the other half showed signs of where the staircases used to be. Truly shocking. Gas leaks made it difficult to work on the area. We were told to turn our cellphones off, and cars and motorcycles weren’t allowed to start for fear of sparks starting a fire.
I have spent the majority of my life in this city and at 35 years old, have experienced a number of strong earthquakes. None of them felt threatening – we always evacuated the building or just waited for the tremors to stop. Little did I know I was about to understand why my older relatives were so sensitive to the quakes.
We learned a lot after the earthquake 32 years ago, and laws were created to guarantee the safety of every building constructed after 1985.
The most impressive aspect of it all was how these support networks had been set up by civilians who just instinctively joined forces given the circumstances. I was reminded of the scenes I had watched in documentaries from the quake in ‘85 where thousands of Mexicans worked together in the exact same way, trying to bring the whole city back up after the tragedy.