Sunday, September 19, 2010

"Then it was deathly quiet"

25 years ago today, at 7:19 a.m., an 8.1-magnitude earthquake shook Mexico City. The seven-minute tremor caused an estimated 10,000 deaths and left at least 250,000 homeless.
I had just begun work that week for the English-language Mexico City News.  
In memory of that day and the thousands of lives lost in the earthquake, here is my account published a few days after the quake, in the daily Vancouver Sun.
A collapsed school

Special to the Sun

Mexico City -- When the pitching finally stopped in the fourth floor apartment, when the building stopped cracking and shaking, the sounds of screams and breaking glass subsided.

We stumbled to a window to look outside, just in time to see a nearby apartment building slowly tilt and then topple from the skyline.

Across the street the facade had fallen from another building, exposing the rooms inside like a doll-house.

On the radio, the announcer instructed: “Maintain absolute calm. The worst is over. Don’t got to work, don’t go to school.”

But in the battered streets, calm was an impossibility.

In the ruins, volunteers began scrambling through the rubble minutes after the last shudders of the quake had faded, as clouds of dust still hung in the air.

When the quake first hit last Thursday, I half-woke in confusion and thought my bed had broken. Then there was another violent shake and suddenly I was awake.

The earthquake lasted seven minutes. Dishes fell from shelves, walls cracked noisily, and the building lurched far enough over that it seemed certain to crash down. Then it righted itself as the earth buckled again.

There was the sound of crashing and screams. And then it was deathly quiet.

The three of us in the apartment — Warren O’Briain of Victoria, Ellen Saenger of Abbotsford and myself, all journalists with the Mexico City News — were safe and unharmed.

Heading out into the neighborhood, we found buildings collapsed or damaged on every block.

We wandered through the streets, and tried to call home on payphones that didn’t function.

The devastation around us was beyond comprehension.

We watched rescue workers search through the jumble of concrete and steel that had once been a building, calling for silence when one thought he heard a survivor’s voice.

The quake cut a swath through the heart of the city. Hospital buildings collapsed; downtown hotels, government buildings, press offices, banks and schools were destroyed. The stock exchange was badly damaged. All around were the sights and sounds and smells of disaster: crowds running in fear at the discovery of leaking gas lines at the huge Multifamiliar Juarez housing complex. The smell of gas in the streets. Women sobbing on strangers’ shoulders. Medical attendants on the street dressing wounds. A teenaged girl standing at a street corner across from her collapsed home, pleading for help from passers-by. Hospital staff dressed in their scrubs, atop a pancaked hospital, pulling at broken concrete with bare hands.

At the central medical complex, nurses and interns joined rescue workers searching for survivors in the devastated nurses’ residence at Juarez hospital. The maternity wing had also collapsed, killing as yet uncounted mothers and babies.

Workers formed bucket brigades to douse fires that have flared periodically since the Thursday morning quake.

“There are still many people alive in there,” said Dr. Juan Aguilar Rodriguez, the hospital director.

“There are groups of 10, 15, 20 people who were in different parts of the tower and they are asking for help.”

He said it was possible that among those trapped were about 30 medical students who were attending a class.

Aguilar Rodriguez estimated there were 800 to 900 people in the hospital when the earthquake struck at 7:20 a.m. Thursday.

“It was a time in which there were many people because there was a shift change, some people were coming in and others hadn’t left yet,” he said, and 350 of the hospital’s 680 beds were occupied.

Others in the building included doctors, nurses, social workers and maintenance and cleaning crews, he said.

By Saturday morning, 32 bodies and 140 injured had been removed from the wreckage, but it was not known how many others might have been able to escape before the building collapsed.

Aguilar Rodriguez said the known dead included the chiefs of surgery, intensive care, equipment and maternity services.

“They all died at their posts,” he said. “We have lost very valuable, capable people.”

Hundreds of people crowded outside the structure, seeking news of relatives who had been in the building.

Rescuers around the city were still combing the wreckage for survivors as the second quake struck Friday.

Weakened buildings fell into the street near the downtown newspaper offices where we work. And for the second time, hundreds were trapped in the subway.

After the second quake, throngs of people fled from buildings in the centre of the city to pitch tents in central parks. They huddled with sheets wrapped around their shoulders, a few salvaged possessions piled beside them. When the parks filled, they huddled on street corners and later, on traffic medians.

To navigate the streets at night, vehicles zig-zag between burning pots of pitch that mark the narrow passage through roads clogged with rubble.

The streets today are still jammed with trucks and buses and mini-vans converted to emergency vehicles.

On some streets, amid the rubble, hang gay decorations — reminders of the 175th anniversary of Mexico’s Independence Day, the Sunday before the quake. The vast square in front of the National Palace that was packed with people for independence celebrations is now filled with army trucks.

In the collapsed seven-story apartment near the building where I was staying, we were told only the ground floor residents escaped. During the weekend, rescuers continued to comb the rubble, finding the dead and hoping still for the living.

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