Voyages: Terror and Heroism in Mexico City |

Voyages: Terror and Heroism in Mexico City

by Morgan Smith

“Estamos bien, estamos vivos,” Sergio, the security guard says. “We’re well, we’re alive.” At 1:14 p.m. on Sept. 19, he saw the building across the street collapse “in a millisecond.” Eight people died but 10 were rescued as volunteers immediately appeared and began digging into the rubble without masks for protection against the dust or gloves. A tank of gas also came tumbling down and got caught in a tree; otherwise it could have landed and exploded, killing him.

This tremendous earthquake occurred just after Mexicans had completed an evacuation drill marking the 32nd anniversary of the 1985 quake that killed as many as 10,000.

I flew to Mexico City on Tuesday, Oct. 3, and spent Wednesday and Thursday surveying the damage and interviewing survivors in the heavily hit Roma and Condesa areas. As tragic as stories like Sergio’s are, the reaction to this devastating event was truly heroic. Here is a summary of the trip as well as photos:

Ruth Alegria saw a mattress shop collapse 45 minutes after the initial shock and also stressed the appearance of all the young people who dug others out.

Craig and Jorge, the owners of the Red Tree Hotel where she is staying, opened their doors to those who were displaced.

“Los refugiados,” Ruth calls them, herself included.

Yaya Flores, who works at the hotel, would work her eight-hour shift and then volunteer for another 12 hours of digging to look for survivors or to find bodies. When a dead person was retrieved, the temptation was to say, “I have to leave, I’ve done enough.” But others would say, “This cannot be their funeral place; we cannot leave the dead there.”

There was an outpouring of help and love. People hung extension cords out windows for others to recharge phones and be able to communicate. A pool store put out a sign reading “take a bath here.” Others offered food.

“I never want to eat a sandwich again,” Yaya says. She was in charge of a brigade of 25 kids from many countries. Uber gave free service.

Then we go to the house of Cristina Potter. She was knocked out of the chair in her office when it hit but her house stood strong. “Por eso, tenemos vida” — “For that reason, we are alive.”

We stop in the Condesa area where an apartment building has been sealed off with yellow tape. A stunned-looking man is standing there with a construction hard hat on as if he were a worker, but in fact he is Sergio, a resident who cannot go back up to his apartment, even though he has no socks or shirts. Then two young women appear, Monserrat and Erika, both of whom worked in a business two houses away that was unharmed. Because it was only two stories rather than a high rise? Or just the random nature of the earthquake?

At a pet food store, Sara Vidal talks of the overpowering smell of gas, the dust, of people running, chaos, not knowing what to do.

“Un caos, todo corriendo,” “Chaos, everyone running,” says Lizbeth, who works in a nearby restaurant.

Marta Patricia Arias lives on the south edge of Mexico City and asked me to interview her.

More than her personal fear, she wanted to stress, “La ayuda de los jovenes, la solidaria de la gente.” “The help of the young people, the solidarity of everyone.” All sorts of people came running out to help, not just Mexicans. People clapped for them. But she adds, “La gente queda con miedo.” “People are still fearful.” She is a dentist at the university and her husband, Cuauhtémoc, is a sociologist. They talk about “La solidaridad de los Mexicanos. La gente dando cosas, comida, agua.” “The solidarity of Mexicans. People giving things, food, water.”

Their youngest son now sleeps with his clothes on so he can run if there is another tremor.

One joke: The food distributed had the symbol of the PRI, the ruling political party, as if always trying to make political points even in times of tragedy.

Cuauhtémoc then says, “En la tragédia es donde encontramos la fuerza.” “We find strength in tragedy.”

Lourdes, the wife of my guide, Paco, describes the horizontal and the vertical movements. It made them feel as if they were drunk. She was in a car, couldn’t communicate with her children, and screaming, “mis niñas, mis niñas.” This was her first trip out of her home since the earthquake and she was still terrified.

“Miedo hoy. Tristeza,” she says. “There is fear today. Sadness.”

Then I meet Alan Méndez Florián, a renowned chef who opened his restaurant, Pasillo de Humo, to the volunteers and offered free tamales and hot food for days.

Everywhere we turn, we see cracks up and down the remaining buildings. How much structural damage has been done? Who will pay for repairs? Where will thousands of displaced people live in the meantime?

There’s a larger issue here, however. It is the heroism shown by so many, the same heroism that we have seen during the floods in Houston and the fires in California. Will those acts of heroism and that sense of caring and community have an impact on Mexico’s traditionally uncaring government? Will it have an impact here in the United States where we are so bittery divided?

Morgan Smith is a freelance writer and photographer located in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He can be reached at