This article originally appeared on VICE Mexico.
The rescuers assembled atop a mountain of rubble that just moments before had comprised a seven-story apartment building in Mexico City's fashionable Condesa neighborhood. Rows of residents stood in formation, ready to help remove debris.
A woman named Paola came running, the desperation of someone who had lost everything visible on her face. Her apartment, located on Amsterdam Avenue and Laredo Street, had collapsed after a 7.1-grade earthquake struck Tuesday, killing more than 200 people.
It was barely 11 AM when Paola and hundreds of residents of the city participated in earthquake drill #32, so numbered for the anniversary of the notorious September 19, 1985, quake. It's an activity so rooted in Mexican culture now as to be a sort of national tradition. But the inconceivable—a real disaster—came just two hours later, when a tremor began to shake the city like some kind of awful cosmic joke.
From skyscrapers, one could see dozens of buildings turn to dust within seconds.
Forensic specialists examine the body of a man they recovered from the collapsed building at the corner of San Luis Potosí and Medellín Streets. Photo by Hans-Maximo Musielik
The rescuers at Paola's building described more people trapped inside, possibly older adults who couldn't get out in time. Early on, those doing the rescue work were neighbors, construction workers, and office staff who sprang to action. Supplies arrived to bolster their effort with unusual speed: water, bandages, syringes, food, and even ironing boards—to be used as stretchers—were everywhere.
Condesa is an exclusive part of the city, known for its parks and a busy nightlife scene. But after the earthquake, there was an eerie silence in the neighborhood, along with the terrible smell of gas due to various leaks. It looked as if the neighborhood might have been bombed; at least three other seven-story buildings seemed to be at risk of collapse.
The city's earthquake alarm, a system that's been bragged about so much by local government authorities over the years, functioned nicely during the drill that morning. Seconds after the rumbling began for real in the afternoon, the alarms sounded again—by then it was too late.
Lauro Cantú was just about to leave his office for lunch when he felt the earthquake. He walked ten blocks and didn't see any damaged buildings until he got to his own apartment, in the Del Valle neighborhood. It suddenly looked like years had passed since he was last home.
"I'm single. I don't live with anyone, and I've just lost everything that I had," he said. "I hope the authorities help me. I wanted to go in and get something, whatever there was, from my home, and the doors couldn't open anymore."
Cantú's six-story building collapsed on itself as if it had been crushed from the roof down. From the outside, you could see the belongings of residents: a chair, televisions, closets, furniture—the things people take a lifetime to acquire, lost in less than a minute.
In the south of the city, in Tlalpan—an area known for a large number of schools—there were still more collapses. At the Enrique Rebsamen School, children were in the middle of classes when the earthquake struck. Parents were quick to amass around the debris, desperately looking for their kids. A fair number of students were rescued, but at least another 20 were killed and dozens went missing. (Multiple teachers were also killed.)
Monterrey Technological, a university in the same neighborhood, was also severely damaged. At an hour when the school tends to be busy, the floor began to move; the bridges connecting classrooms quickly collapsed.
"I was in a meeting when it started to tremble. I said, 'It's shaking,'" said a professor at the university named Lourdes. "Nobody believed me because we'd just returned from the earthquake drill. When they started to feel it, a teacher tried to run and broke a leg. I managed to grab my computer."
At the time of this writing, reports suggested at least five deaths at the school, though dozens of names of missing circulated on social media.
Just after the earthquake, the city streets were full of people trying to get away from buildings for fear that their windows would shatter. Some were determined to help their neighbors, and others walked aimlessly. But many of them surely had the same question in mind: Is this really happening the exact same day the quake of '85 hit?
Translated by Julie Schwietert Collazo