WORLD

A LONG WEEK OF DEATH

MARCI MCDONALD September 30 1985
WORLD

A LONG WEEK OF DEATH

MARCI MCDONALD September 30 1985

A LONG WEEK OF DEATH

WORLD

Darkness had just fallen over the devastated heart of Mexico City. Slowly, its benumbed 18 million people were beginning to recover from the worst tragedy in the capital’s history. Then, they were gripped with a terrifying sense of déjà vu. Walls trembled, chandeliers careened wildly overhead and floors gave way beneath feet. Women ran screaming and sobbing hysterically into the streets. Commuters poured in panic out of subway stations on the six of seven lines still operating. Police and ambulance sirens pierced the eerie calm as a new round of power failures plunged the city into darkness. Almost 36 hours to the minute after a devastating earthquake wreaked havoc in the ancient heart of the world’s largest city—leaving an estimated 4,000

dead, 10,000 wounded and thousands more still missing under the charred mounds of rubble—a second aftershock registering only scant decimal points less on the Richter scale jolted the metropolis.

As rescue workers scrambled over the smoking ruins of 260 buildings already collapsed by the first quake—apartment houses, offices, hotels, hospitals, churches and schools—another 15 damaged structures toppled in heaps of twisted metal and concrete shards, leaving the city’s business and residential core resembling a war zone. For some who had survived the first, three-minute tremor, the second was too much— snapping nerves already stretched taut. Evacuated from her apartment by police the day before, Luz Morales Monroy, a wizened grandmother of 70, had set up

her own stubborn vigil in the street outside to guard her property from looters when the pavement cracked under her again Friday night. It accomplished what an official evacuation order could not. She ran shaking and sobbing to an impromptu emergency shelter—a tent of old sheets and bedspreads in the shadow of the city’s Revolutionary Monument. “No more, no more,” she repeated, her body wracked with tremors.

The Thursday quake, nicknamed “El Grande” or “The Big One” by Mexicans, was the worst to hit Mexico this century. The initial shock, with its epicentre 400 km to the southwest on the Pacific Coast, measured 7.8 on the open-ended Richter scale and reverberated across 310,000 square miles of south central Mexico. Tremors were felt as far north as Texas and New Mexico. Property

damage was extensive in the Mexican coastal states of Jalisco, Colima, Michoacán and Guerrero, stretching between Guadalajara in the north and the resort town of Acapulco in the south. In Playa Azul, another beach resort, 30 people died when two hotels collapsed. And roughly 21 freighters and fishing trawlers were missing and feared lost in turbulent seas off the Pacific shore.

But the worst destruction by far was in Mexico City, a sprawling urban metropolis 7,400 feet above sea level, ringed by mountains and volcanoes. The city lies on top of a prehistoric lake bed of soft clay, which shakes like jelly when struck by seismic tremors. And the capital is especially prone to earthquakes because of its proximity to the Cocos Plate, a section of the Pacific Ocean floor that pushes against the Central American land mass, causing frequent earth tremors and volcanic eruptions. But despite a long history of seismic activity—including a 1973 earthquake that killed more than 700—no one in the capital was prepared for the almost unimaginable scale of last week’s disaster.

In one of the worst tragedies, 100 mothers and 80 newborn babies were

buried when the six-storey maternity wing of the city’s General Hospital collapsed. “It was like a slow-motion film,” said a dazed newspaper vendor who witnessed the horror. “It began to fall down, little by little, with a terrible noise and clouds of smoke.”

The quake struck just four days after the nation’s heady Independence Day celebrations. It was a sunny Thursday morning and the sky was a crystal-clear blue—a rare event for the smog-plagued capital. On Juárez Avenue, the huge landmark Haste clock stopped at precisely the instant of the shock—7:19 a.m.—with most of the population still

asleep or at breakfast or en route to work or school. Nearby, the 500-room Regis hotel collapsed into a saucer of indistinguishable concrete debris which promptly burst into flame, triggered by leaking gas mains. For the next 48 hours firemen trained hoses and bulldozers on the charred ruins, but managed to unearth only 20 bodies from beneath the hotel’s ancient, mock-Roman columns. The only man pulled out alive, bloodied and hysterical, died soon after in hospital.

Out of the hotel’s wreckage glinted the bizarrely untouched tinsel of Independence Day celebrations, twinkling beside a heap of yellow-haired dolls from a devastated toy shop. At least seven other hotels were demolished or severly damaged, and at least five Americans were killed.

Within three hours of the second earthquake, which lasted two minutes and registered 7.3 on the Richter scale,

President Miguel de la Madrid sped to the Imevision television station, still wearing the same leisure suit that he had on while he toured the disaster sites, and made an emergency appeal to the population to stay calm. As the city’s flags flew at half-mast, de la Madrid called for three days of national mourning and warned of more potential aftershocks. Although reluctant to accept the massive outpouring of aid from around the world —including a $l-million cheque offered by Canadian aid officials to Mexico City Friday, along with an aircraft carrying emergency supplies—he affirmed that the earthquake

was a “national tragedy.” He added, “The truth is that we do not have enough resources to confront the disaster quickly or adequately.” Then a huge aid flow began from the United States and other countries around the world.

Indeed, it was another stunning blow for a nation still reeling from successive economic crises over the past three years. Mexico has a foreign debt of $96 billion (U.S.), the peso at an alltime low. Oil prices—the country’s main source of revenue—remain depressed, and tourism, its third-leading industry, has been hurt by a rising crime wave. The massive reconstruction effort now required will mean a huge additional burden.

Compounding the tragedy, on the same day that the first quake struck, the International Monetary Fund suspended Mexico’s international credit. To one lawyer who stood in dismay on the devastated main street, the Paseo de la

Reforma, the marquee on the damaged Ciné de Paris movie house summed up the country’s current fate: “Out of control.” Said the president of the Atizapan Red Cross, Maria Christina de Arrioja: “We were already going through a very bad crisis. People are starving to death. And then this happens.” Vowed de la Madrid: “We will fight back with vigor.” The earthquakes crushed new buildings and old with equal fury. Some of the visibly solid structures, constructed according to advanced, quake-resistant techniques, sustained heavy damage, while older, feebler buildings withstood the shock. Many observers said the

structures that crumbled may have been weakened by hundreds of minor tremors; last week’s shockwaves simply finished the job nature had begun years ago.

One of the worst-damaged areas was Colonia Roma, a residential district southwest of the city’s centre, where the Benito Juárez housing estate—one of Mexico’s most handsome public housing projects—lay in ruins.

To the north, tourist George Kemp of Pittsburgh had been taking a shower in the Hotel Alameda when the quake hit. He was swiftly herded across the street into Alameda Park, where he stood barefoot for three hours wearing only the towel in which he had escaped. When authorities refused to let him return for his belongings, two Mexicans loaned him a shirt, pants and shoes. But he and his wife could not leave the country because all their money, tickets and passports were still trapped in the

ruined hotel’s safe. In the heart of downtown the Juárez hospital caved in, trapping an estimated 900 patients and medical personnel. One victim survived for 36 hours, calling to rescue teams for water while they dug for him, but died just as he was pulled out onto a stretcher. Agonized relatives crowded outside army ropes sealing off the wreckage as the stench of rotting bodies rose in the heat. The crowds wept with uncertainty over the fate of loved ones. “Horas de angustia” {“Hours of anguish”), summed up the six-inch headlines in the daily Ovaciones newspaper.

Mexican marines probed the ruins of the government immigration headquarters and the naval secretariat, part of which collapsed on a black pickup truck, leaving a sea of dust studded with twisted metal struts. The 200-year-old National Library which houses the country’s constitution caved in, and police were forced to evacuate the damaged National Medical Centre. Taxis were commandeered as ambulances and yellow city buses were transformed into ferries for emergency supplies. People ran dazed through downtown streets, where fallen concrete and broken glass littered boulevards still blooming with lilies and irises, shrieking their relatives’ names. Hospitals were deluged with the wounded, whose stretchers spilled out into corridors. But even in the horror there were small miracles. In the crushed fifth-floor corridor of the hospital at Tlaxcoaque, Angela Campos Contreras, who had been rescued from the sidewalk in front of her home where she had passed the night, suddenly gave birth to a baby girl in perfect health, squalling lustily among the debris.

Not all the stories ended as happily. In the crowded Tlatelolco district, where streamlined high-rises tower over Aztec ruins buried beneath their foundations, Maria-Elena Buendiá Alatriste had just left her apartment with her husband, on her way to her job as a government secretary. She was almost at the bus stop when the earth trembled under her. She looked back to see the giant Nuevo Leon complex, where her three teenage sons were having breakfast on the 10th floor, crumble in a roar of dust. For the next 48 hours she huddled in the door of a family van, without sleep, staring at the desolation and rocking red-eyed and disconsolate as shifts of rescue workers clambered gingerly over the concrete slabs mingled with patches of orange broadloom and rags of flowered curtains. When the final third of the apartment complex toppled in the second quake, observers held out little hope of finding survivors.

In the hard-hit suburb of Navarte, Samuel Rivera had just gone down the street to a telephone office when the quake buried his wife and two sons. Twenty-four hours later, rescue teams

heard a boy’s voice from beneath the concrete mountains where his apartment had stood. He identified himself as Angel Gómez and he said that he was trapped with two other children. As workers scrambled to heave aside mortar slabs, the floors already leaning at 45-degree angles buckled again, silencing Angel Gómez. In one glass office building belonging to a youth club, Red Cross officers could talk by telephone to the 150 people trapped inside but they could not enter the collapsed lower floors of the fragile structure to free them. Facing warnings that more buildings around them were about to give way, army officers were planning to scale the frame with mountain-climbing equipment.

After the second quake struck on Friday evening, thousands abandoned their homes for the night, rather than risk a third scare. Makeshift camps were set up in the manicured gardens of central Alameda Park. Sheila Greenblatt and her aunt Shirley Kindman, from Orlando, Fla., had just arrived in Mexico City for their vacation when the first earthquake pummelled their hotel, the Alameda, forcing them into the downtown streets with only their clothes. But it was the second tremor that frightened them most. “What made it worse was the people screaming around us,” said Kindman. “Now I understand what real panic is.”

The tragedy was compounded by the almost complete failure of the country’s communications network. With telephone and Telex lines down, information about the disaster came initially from ham-radio operators and radio and television stations that could be monitored from the United States. By week’s end, most domestic telephone circuits were working, but international links remained severed as repairmen struggled to rebuild the central microwave tower, which collapsed and caught fire in the quake. Mexicans seeking to reassure relatives abroad of their welfare were forced to leave the country to get their messages out.

The shortage of information left many North Americans anxiously awaiting reports on the fate of their families. At least 4,500 Canadians telephoned' an Ottawa hotline seeking news about relatives in Mexico. And the Canadian Embassy in Mexico set up an emergency 24-hour service, asking Canadians to contact the mission. By week’s end, about 500 Canadians had confirmed their own or friends’ safety.

For many of the 50,000 volunteers who poured into the city offering their services—some pilgrimaging from the countryside with pickaxes and shovels— the rescue efforts were disheartening. With more buildings and alreadydemolished heaps of rubble threatening to cave in further, many were forced to

stand helplessly by as spectators to the tragedy. “It’s frustrating,” said Maria Christina de Arrioja. “It’s terrible to see your own city coming apart and see that the government doesn’t have enough equipment to handle it.” Even de la Madrid was forced to admit: “We have reacted to the maximum of our ability. But in the face of an earthquake of such magnitude, we don’t have the elements to deal with this as quickly as we would like.” Finally, the Mexicans asked the United States—a country with which it has strained relations—for technical, but not financial, aid.

Still, much of Mexico City was left physically untouched. Roads from the airport were jammed with traffic and pedestrians. It was only near the hardest-hit and most populous downtown neighborhoods that the scene suddenly

took on the colors of a bombed-out battlefield. The gilt angel of the independence monument—which had toppled in Mexico City’s 1957 earthquake—stayed firmly winged atop her column. But along the Paseo de la Reforma the blocks were pockmarked with horror: here an office tower shrivelled to a quarter of its size, its top floors melted into so much concrete icing; there a hotel front buckling at a 45-degree angle with drapes, plaster and steel reinforcement struts oozing from the cracks. Electricity, water and gas lines ruptured, cutting off service to one-third of the city.

As authorities cordoned off the centre of the city, young soldiers in camouflage fatigues, brandishing PAL automatic rifles, waved off curiosity seekers. Police shouted harsh warnings at journalists not to smoke as they entered areas where severed gas mains filled the air with the acrid smell of leaks. Officials also warned people to boil drinking water for at least 10 minutes because of the danger of seepage from broken sewage mains.

Despite warnings about looters, one of the most startling aspects of the quake was the solidarity of Mexicans. Thousands more volunteered for rescue efforts than could be utilized, from students to weathered campesinos. Blankets, clothes and food supplies poured in for the homeless who huddled in public schools. In the street, tourists who had become accustomed to complaining of banditos found themselves touched by small acts of kindness from Mexicans. Said de la Madrid: “This proves the values of Mexico.” Those values will be tested more than ever in the weeks and months ahead as the shaken capital braces for a troubled and uncertain future. But for now they have been tested and found true.

—MARCI MCDONALD in Mexico City