I Survived the Mexico City Earthquake. This Is My Story
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because we will survive.
By Devon VanHouten-Maldonado
I was at home in the Roma neighborhood when the 7.1 magnitude earthquake hit Mexico City on September 19, exactly 32 years after the 1985 tragedy that killed thousands. There was no warning that the quake was coming, despite the fact that the capital boasts one of the most advanced earthquake alarms in the world.
The first tremble from beneath the earth was minor, and I thought it was a truck passing or the metro slithering underneath — normal things that make the streets rumble in this megalopolis. But the second shock hit with a force that launched me to my feet. The house swayed and twisted as if it were made of paper, and the city erupted into a cacophony of sirens and sounds of destruction as I stumbled out the front door. Suddenly, I was shirtless and shoeless in the street with my neighbors, being thrown back and forth by the ground that seemed to turn to liquid.
As we all reeled in the street, the smell of gas seeped out of the front gate of our vecindad, a condo-style building with small houses sharing a courtyard and a gated entrance. “Shut the gas and turn off the electricity, there’s a leak!” shouted one neighbor.
I hurried back in and tried to open the door to the back patio to reach our tank, but it was blocked. I could smell the gas leaking into the air. I ran back outside to the courtyard, into the neighbors’ house and up the spiral staircase to the shared roof so that I could get to our patio from above. The gas tank and some miscellaneous construction material had fallen across the door. I twisted the knob to close the tank and lifted it to an upright position as two neighbors emerged from the roof coughing and gagging from the toxic fumes.
The chaos and noise only kept growing as the city descended into total gridlock.
I grabbed a shirt, some flip-flops and my roommate’s dog, and left on foot fearing an explosion. I did a slow lap around the block and started to realize the extent of the damage. Around the corner, near the Centro Medico metro station, an apartment building teetered, close to collapsing, as glass and pieces of concrete rained down on the sidewalk. Residents of the building scattered on the street below, their gazes fixed on their precarious homes. Smoke could be seen rising above rooftops, and the streets filled with more and more panicked chilangos — the common name for Mexico City residents. I tried to call my family and friends but the networks were overwhelmed, and I couldn’t get through to anyone.
Returning to my house, the smell of gas had lifted, but we remained without electricity or internet. I kept trying to make phone calls, with no luck. At a loss, I grabbed my camera and headed out into the streets again. People were embracing each other, frantically trying to reach their loved ones or running in panic. The devastation only seemed to get worse everywhere I looked: Within a few blocks I saw several hospitals that had sustained fatal damage, and patients were being evacuated into the street in wheelchairs. These particular hospitals, and other new buildings built since the catastrophic earthquake in 1985, were supposed to be built with some of the strictest building standards in the world after new laws were passed in 1987, standards on par with the United States and Japan so that Mexico would never see another tragedy on the same scale.
The chaos and noise only kept growing as the city descended into total gridlock. As godinez, white-collar office workers, fled their workplaces by car and on foot, the streets became impassable. Improvised barriers were erected around buildings that were still shedding deadly shards of glass or on the brink of collapse. Public transportation shut down, and a stream of people emerged from underground metro entrances. Millions took to the streets. While the storefronts remained closed, street vendors sold Popsicles and tacos without skipping a beat — it was surreal.
The desperation and panic in the immediate aftermath reached a climax when I came upon a five-story office building that had collapsed, one of about 50 in the city, with at least 10 people still inside. Hundreds, maybe a thousand, had already gathered and worked with their bare hands — in their suits and ties — to remove the rubble that buried their co-workers. Citizens swarmed and formed a human chain, moving the tremendous pile of ruin as fast as humanly possible. Police struggled to establish some order. Ambulances stood by. One man sat on the sidewalk, full of soot, staring blankly into the crowd, struggling to cope with what he’d just seen.
After five or six hours, when power came back on in Roma, I was finally able to reach my family and begin to check in with friends in the city. In the following days, the chaos continued as we all worked to rescue survivors, move donated supplies around the city and locate our loved ones. The response from the Mexican people has been overwhelming. Despite a total breakdown of the state’s official disaster response, chilangos continue to offer their time, money and resources to neighbors and strangers during the long cleanup process.
Mexicans are saying that it wasn’t only apartment buildings and schools that collapsed during the earthquake, but also the government. After the dust has settled and the final body count has been tallied, politicians will have to answer to a mobilized and empowered nation.
- Devon VanHouten-Maldonado, OZY Author Contact Devon VanHouten-Maldonado