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Twenty years ago this morning

Here's a pretty old post from the blog archives of Geekery Today; it was written about 19 years ago, in 2005, on the World Wide Web.

photo: a building, collapsed, in Mexico City

México, D.F., 19 September 1985.

7:19 am, 19 September 1985

BBC (19 September 1985): Mexico suffers devastating earthquake:

A massive earthquake has hit Mexico not far from its capital, Mexico City, causing untold casualties and widespread damage.

Officials say at least 170 people have been killed and thousands injured, but it is feared the death toll may rise into the thousands.

The quake hit the west coast near the resort town of Acapulco early this morning, and was measured by the US Geological Survey at a magnitude of 7.8.

It lasted for 50 seconds, and devastated three states on the Pacific coast.

A part of a mountain just slid away, falling on the peasants who were just getting up to go to work, said Lieutenant Manuel Sanchez, from the fire department’s headquarters in the state of Jalisco.

Most of the damage, however, was caused 250 miles (400 km) away in Mexico City, which was declared a disaster zone.

Telephone links were cut, and a communications tower burst into flames, leaving television broadcasts monitored in neighbouring Guatemala the only source of information.

Television reports said hundreds of people are trapped in rubble, and more than a third of all buildings have been damaged.

Clouds of dust hung over the city centre, and broken glass and chunks of cement littered the streets.

There was a strong smell of gas and the city government issued a radio appeal for people not to light matches.

Manuel Maga?@c3;b1;a Contreras, Excelsior (September 20, 1998): The greatest catastrophe ever suffered by Mexico City:

Of all the scenes of terror in which tears mixed with cries for help, sorrow, etc., what survives is the coldness of the numbers.

Officially, the records which were put at the disposal of the authorities listed 4,541 casualties. Nevertheless, non-official versions put the number of people killed at more than 30,000.

Assistance to the injured required the staffing of 131 first-aid stations, and even so a greater number of such installations would have been necessary. Figures finally provided by the Federal District authorities certified that 14,286 injured were attended to. It was necessary to transfer 4,900 people from damaged hospital buildings to other health institutions. It is said that 38,605 additional patients were looked after. Among them, 22,296 for injuries other than physical, 10,188 for minor injuries, and 5,748 for major injuries, with 2,637 requiring hospitalization.

It’s funny the things that you remember. Aryxael remembers riding in the family’s LeBaron on the way to school, when his mother said That’s weird, I feel like the car is being yanked away from me. Cuervo del D.F. remembers that he was playing at wrestling on the bed with his brother, and when his mother screamed they first thought she was yelling at them again to stop fighting.

Of course, you also remember the fear:

Tampoco había luz en su casa y la angustia de mi mamá ya era para saber como estaba mi papá. El trabajaba de velador en la catedral metropolitana (z?@c3;b3;calo) y a la hora del temblor era exactamente la hora en la que se dispon?@ef;bf;½a a regresar a casa. Mis tíos tenía un radio de pilas y lo encendieron, muchas estaciones no estaban al aire, pero fue cuando escucharon la narraci?@c3;b3;n hecha por Jacobo Zabludowski (reportero mexicano). Al escuchar que el centro de la ciudad estaba casi en ruinas mi mamá nos dej?@c3;b3; con mis tíos para ella regresara a casa y saber si ya había llegado mi papá.

Una vida cualqiuera en Chilangotitlán 2005-09-19: Un día como hoy pero hace 20 a?@c3;b1;os (parte I)

The lights weren’t on in their house either, and now my mother was anguished to know how my father was. He worked as a vigil-keeper at the Metropolitan Cathedral (Z?@c3;b3;calo [a square in central Mexico City]) and the hour of the quake was exactly the hour he planned to leave for home. My aunt and uncle had a battery radio and they fired it up; many stations weren’t on the air, but then we heard the narration made by Jacobo Zabludowski (a Mexican reporter). When she heard that the city center was almost in ruins, my mother left us with my aunt and uncle to go back to the house and find out if my father had made it back.

— Una vida cualqiuera en Chilangotitlán 2005-09-19: A day like today but 20 years ago (part I)

There are millions of stories like this one. And tens of thousands that did not end with a safe return. Partly because we are all very small and vulnerable to the tremendous power of nature. But partly also because of the callousness and criminal incompetance of the PRI government:

In 1985 a terrible earthquake hit Mexico. As analyzed by vulcanologists it was of a type that would maximize the damage to the kinds of buildings that abound in Central Mexico City, and it created havoc there. Whole city blocks disappeared, the apartment towers of Tlaltelolco were either damaged or destroyed, but the worst damage was done in “Porifirian” Mexico City where sprawling three and four story buildings not only housed thousands of families in cheap apartments, but also assembly and textile factories that employed thousands of workers. Fortunately the earthquake struck before the morning shift went in, but still thousands of people (perhaps as many as 20,000) were killed. The government response was weak and ineffectual. The President appeared, too well turned out in an expensive leather jacket, to tour the affected areas. U.S. and world help was refused because of what outsiders considered misplaced pride, with a resulting shortage of the very kind of heavy earthmoving equipment that alone could disinter the victims, And when it did arrive, the zones were cordoned off by the army, which allowed, or so it was said, the machinery to be used to save heavy equipment and business records rather than the people or their remains. The earthquake was important because it laid bare the lack of imagination and energy in government circles, and its tendency to defend itself first in any time of crisis, rather than concern itself with the living conditions of Mexicans.

— The Sociodemographic Effects of the Crisis in Mexico

The one thin ray of light through the darkness was the spontaneous courage, humanity, and solidarity shown by ordinary Mexicans, while their government ignored and betrayed them. When the government was unable or unwilling to rescue the wounded and dying, the people did it for themselves:

One of the lessons we mustn’t squander is the example shown by neighbours when it came to saving people trapped under the wreckage. In the Tlatelolco Unit, especially in the ‘Nuevo Le?@c3;b3;n’ building, many people young and old came to help trapped people and they were called ‘the moles’ [because they dug through the rubble, often with their bare hands, to rescue the people buried under it]. From the Merced zone, a very short person by the name of Sari?@c3;b1;ana, a native of the state of Morelos, became famous and was nicknamed ‘the flea’, saving many people who would otherwise have suffered a prolonged death, had they not be saved by ‘the flea’.

Manuel Maga?@c3;b1;a Contreras, Excelsior (September 20, 1998): The greatest catastrophe ever suffered by Mexico City

Only after a second quake [a huge aftershock the following day] hit and the staggering loss of life could no longer be denied did the government react in a more serious fashion. But, as in 1968, the PRI authorities showed more concern with restoring order than with saving lives. It placed the ruins off-limits to the public, claiming they were unsafe. And, instead of digging, many troops devoted their energy to blocking the neighbors, relatives and thousands of students who turned out to assist in rescue efforts. The official rescue attempt was lackluster, and the authorities, seeing the buried bodies as potential sources of disease rather than potential survivors, sent in heavy equipment to clear the rubble.

Again it was the university students who stood up to the government, clashing with troops who sought to prevent them from digging in the ruins and lying down in front of bulldozers sent to clear the rubble. At the site of a collapsed hospital, students managed to stop the bulldozers long enough for rescuers to tunnel through to a maternity ward and rescue eight babies.

— The Nation 2004-04-01: Democracy Is in the Streets

Courage, love, and humanity don’t need the permission of the law.

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