Travel

Inside the Inspiring Citizen Response to Mexico's Earthquake

When everything falls silent, it's an incomparable, goosebumps-inducing display of human will. "Is there anyone here who hears me?"

by Eliana Gilet; photos by Ernesto Alvarez; translated by Julie Schwietert Collazo
Sep 20 2017, 11:17pm

Photo by Ernesto Álvarez

This article originally appeared on VICE Mexico.

In the face of an historically deadly earthquake in Mexico Tuesday afternoon, people of every age—and especially the young—headed out en masse to the most affected areas to lend their hands, breath, and whatever else they could to help victims.

A man on Escocia Street, in the Del Valle neighborhood, atop one of the dozens of buildings that collapsed in Mexico City as a result of the earthquake. All photos by Ernesto Álvarez

On Escocia Street in the Del Valle neighborhood of Mexico City, the scene was especially heartbreaking. A building collapsed on the corner of Gabriel Mancera, as did another one, farther on, on the corner of Edimburgo Street. An hour after the earthquake Tuesday, a group of people tried to help—by yelling—to encourage a woman to leave her home. She didn't want to abandon it because of all that surrounded her: two collapsed buildings and one that was visibly damaged. Her son begged, "Please, Mom, come down now."

Finally, a group opened the door and pulled the woman out.

Four rows of volunteers began working in a frenzy of organized chaos on a nearby street. Everyone had their opinion on how best to mitigate the suffering, but there was cooperation in play. The outer rows stood pat, functioning as a hand-to-hand brigade; every bit of rubble that needed to move through the disaster zone passes through their hands. In the interior two rows, volunteers carried heavier debris, or else small groups with buckets attacked the most menacing heaps.

A man cleans debris from a collapsed building on Escocia Street, in Mexico City's Del Valle neighborhood, following the 7.1 earthquake on September 19.

One collapsed building looked like a cut-off pyramid. At the start of the rescue operation, people began to work from its top-most point, winding their way down to the base. Finally, a fireman showed up—a real, professional one—who called everyone to attention and explained that the places in which they stood were putting more pressure on the building. That, obviously, wasn't good. What they should do, he said, was move to the sides: The pyramid had to be broken by working from its edges. He added that everyone who wanted to do something, who wanted to work, should move to the corners and begin to take apart the wall, picking it into any size chunks they could.

The people responded and reorganized themselves: Shovels, hoes, and the blessed construction workers with their unique skills with the chisel and hammer began to chip away quickly at the building's seams, following the instructions of the firefighter. The pieces fell in whole chunks at the hands of the workers, who were functioning like chiropractors for cement. At the base of the pyramid, a number of people filled buckets using shovels or their hands, determined not to stop the flow of debris.

There were also those who went down into the holes and gaps in the street: groups of three or four people who offered to join forces under the supervision of local authorities. A neighbor approached and took note of how many people went down and who they were. From deep inside a given hole, they later asked, with shouts, for a belt that might pull people up—they asked that said belts arrive quickly. And when a piece of wood was too large for them to work effectively within a hole, they would cut it and use it to ensure that they not get trapped in the tunnel.

People ask for silence by raising their fists in the air, so that rescuers can try to respond to voices within the rubble caused by the 7.1 earthquake.

Throughout, there were discussions among the workers: Drop this that way, don't cut that. But when the Navy arrived, this stopped, and locals asked them to take over the effort. The camouflaged service members put residents to work—erroneously—doing exactly what they did at the beginning: taking the debris from the center of the pyramid. Below, the rows of people functioning in an orderly fashion were now interrupted by the presence of the uniformed military among them.

At one point, the firefighter returned—the same one who had called for a re-think of the clearance operation in the first place. He told the service members they were wrong, that things have to be done from the outside in, from bottom to top—that they needed to keep removing debris, but to also remove people from the pyramid because they were adding weight to the structure. The Navy soldiers acquiesced, yelled at the public to stop and to go back to what they'd been doing previously.

In the end, regular people seemed to outclass the military in number and in action; the troops had to incorporate into part of an already-organized work effort.

Following the 7.1 earthquake, members of the Navy evacuate people from a collapsed building with a gas leak on Amsterdam Street, in Mexico City's Roma neighborhood.

The signal for silence—a closed fist raised in the air—was another thing the firefighters taught these new aid workers. When everything fell silent, it was an incomparable, goosebumps-inducing display of human will. "Is there anyone here who hears me?" was the call put out to victims still trapped.

A member of the Topos—a rescue brigade formed after the 1985 Mexican earthquake on the same day in September—found a person alive, trapped inside. When he exited opposite the side by which he'd entered, everyone shouted and clapped—even those who couldn't see anything. As if the shouting could warm up the situation, the mood changed.

The survivor himself was a thin, dark-skinned man, his beard full of dirt. He was put on a stretcher and seemed to rock his legs from one side to the other, apparently still in pain.

Rows of people organized to conduct rescue efforts after the 7.1 earthquake that caused the collapse of the factory on Bolívar Street, in the Obrera neighborhood of Mexico City

In the Obrera neighborhood, on the corner of Bolívar and Chimalpopoca Streets, people managed to sneak behind a police cordon put up to keep them out of the rubble. It was almost 6 PM in the evening, and a welcome was delivered by two girls with posters that encouraged people: "Don't smoke; there's a gas leak."

Three young people appeared, covered in dust. They were present, one said, "because our heart tells us to, nothing else. I'm from Cuajimalp [one of the boroughs of Mexico City], but I work here. You can't see much: Just shovels, picks, and boots. We've advanced only a little."

That "little" included having rescued four people and another who died, according to reports from people in the street. The building was a clothing manufacturing company, which made sense given the amount of fabric visible amid the debris. It sat next to the Simón Bolívar School, where the patio was covered by remnants of the collapse.

The textile factory had sported at least three floors. It was another link in the city's seismic history: Just a few blocks from here, on the corner of Manuel Othón and the Calzada de Tlalpan Streets, 1,600 seamstresses died at work in the 1985 earthquake. It's not known how many people, exactly, were at work when Tuesday's earthquake struck the Obrera factory.

A woman named Juana, who waited near the police cordon and lives just a couple blocks away, arrived as a group started to assemble. "People come out in solidarity, tapping into a strength from who knows where, in order to move stones," she said.

Another young woman, Ruth, crossed the police cordon. Also a neighbor, she took off her blue face-mask to say she was here for the people trapped inside and in need of help. "It's not helpful to do nothing," she said. "I wasn't affected by the '85 quake, but I would have helped then too. Let's not forget what happened that day."

Juana said she was around for the '85 quake and noted that back then, as now, whether it involved moving branches or carrying rocks, the ciy's people were eager to help. "With a mountain of boots and 'We've got this,'" as she put it.

People helping in rescue efforts at the factory on Bolívar Street in the Obrera neighborhood in Mexico City. The factory collapsed as a result of the 7.1 quake.

A woman called Olinka said she'd seen other collapses in the nearby Roma neighborhood, where, with her husband, she distributed water and bottles of alcohol—the only items for sale at the pharmacy that they found open. Because of the quake, many of the city's businesses closed and sent employees home. Those determined to get back to their loved ones often did so on foot, forming waves of humanity moving toward the center or to the south of the city. They walked because public transportation had ceased almost completely.

Those businesses that did not close were generally without electricity, because 40 percent of the city—according to ahe figure cited by President Enrique Peña Nieto in his evening address—remained without lights. When he finished, the national anthem was played. Peña Nieto thanked everyone who used social media to signal trouble spots in the city but declined to speak directly about people who showed up in the streets.

"In spite of the corrupt society in which we live, this response elevates Mexico," said Olinka as her husband returned from behind the police cordon. "Or maybe the response is the product of corruption: that you don't wait for help,"

The couple had distributed all their water and alcohol. Now they planned to go home and make coffee—only to return later in the evening to support the people of the city they love.

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