Mexico’s Deadliest Earthquake in Three Decades: Student Eyewitness Accounts

by Michelle Fan

The first article I read the other day came from CNN. “7.1 magnitude earthquake,” it said. “Over two dozen dead, many more injured.” Photos of debris lined my screen. When I first heard about the earthquake that hit Mexico City and Puebla, all I could think about were my friends who lived there. I took to social media immediately, sending a frenzy of messages through FaceBook, Snapchat, Instagram, WhatsApp – whatever platform I could use to connect with my friends.

 

For over an hour, I didn’t receive any responses. I grew more and more nervous as the death count was rising. This was the deadliest earthquake to hit Mexico in thirty years, and not even a month after Mexico’s last earthquake, which had a magnitude of 8.1. The country was already in the middle of responding to that event, and now it had been violently interrupted by another one. I stared at photos and videos of rubble, shaking buildings, and fleeing people as I waited for a text back. And then, my phone started pinging as they responded, each recounting different things that happened during the earthquake. Fortunately, all of my friends were safe. But many of them knew several others who were not so lucky.

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I video-called my friend Montse Orihuella the night of the earthquake after she let me know that she was fine. Our call was scheduled for 9, but we delayed it to 11; she spent those two hours trying to reach the rest of her family and make sure they were safe. Her older brother, who had moved out of the house, was staying over now. For the most part, she told me, everyone was fine, but a school near her grandmother’s home had collapsed while students had been inside. Many of them died. Families are still struggling to reunite because the cellphone service is compromised.

 

“The earthquake knocked many of the towers,” she said. “So many people couldn’t reach their families at first so nobody knew where their kids or parents were.”

 

She told me that the earthquake struck the city with varying degrees of intensity. Her school, Ameyalli, suffered minor structural damage, but no one is allowed into the building until it has been checked for safety.

 

“My phone, my laptop, my backpack, my sweater, everything is there,” she lamented. “All my friends left their things too. Right now we are using my mother’s computer for everything.” Still, she expressed that she felt lucky to even be at home. According to her, other students were trapped in their schools.

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“When some people felt the first tremors in their cars, they just left their cars,” she said, rolling her eyes. “They just walk away, and so these empty cars blocked the road. People were trying to call the ambulance and police for help, but they could not reach anybody because there was such terrible traffic. So my friend could not even get home. The cars and buses cannot move. All the students and teachers are still at the school. They have to use their backpack as a pillow.”

 

Another friend, David Campi, told me that he was on the fourth floor of his university building when the earthquake happened. “I saw how the walls crack and the floor literally exploded,” he said. David was in Puebla, which was also deeply affected by the earthquake.

 

According to Montse, “the buildings around Santa Fe, where we were, are quite safe,” but many older buildings had been severely damaged by the powerful earthquake. She mentioned El Centro, a beautiful historic district in Mexico City marked by old architecture, museums, fountains, and the National Palace. “It was El Centro that suffered… the buildings there could not stand any longer.” Indeed, several news reports indicate that cracks appeared in the cobblestone streets, and apartment complexes swayed before losing stone and structure to the earthquake.


 

I’ve been to Mexico once my entire life: last year, on a Model UN trip. I attended a conference with two Mexican partners, one of whom was Montse. I remember the rooftop pool of the Novotel and the exciting mall just across from it; there were glass squares in the ground where you could peer at the floor beneath you, and koi fish which thrived in the large fountains, excitedly devouring any bread thrown to them. I remember Montse’s school, Ameyalli, and all the students, from 2nd grade to 12th grade, that greeted us with open arms and curiosity. I remember La Casa Azul, the home and now museum of Frida Kahlo. I remember the historic district and its charming old apartments whose balconies were lined with flowers. I can’t imagine seeing Mexico City any differently.

 

Over the phone, Montse described to me a scene of absolute chaos: “My mom was crying, my sister was crying, everyone around us was crying. The buildings were falling, the ground was shaking… it was so, so horrible. The alarm that we have for the earthquake didn’t go off. Everything just started shaking and falling.”

 

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Charly Bueso, another friend who lives in Mexico City, told me that the damage around his neighborhood was “awful”. Many buildings “collapsed minutes away from us.” But thankfully, his family is safe and doing well – just like the rest of my friends in Mexico, they were fortunate enough to escape the brunt of the earthquake. Now, Charly and his family are investing all of their efforts into Mexico’s recovery and providing aid to others. They plan to “be helping the people that need it” by joining volunteer forces and rescuing people from rubble and debris, starting on the 20th, just a day after the earthquake.

 

David also sees Mexico’s recovery as a source of inspiration. September 19th was “also the anniversary of another earthquake that hit the exact same states, in 1985; that time we rebuilt our country and we became stronger. This time we will do the same,” he reassured me. “It’s the Mexican thing to get stronger and better.”

 

But Mexico does need our love and support. This earthquake comes just two weeks after Mexico’s last earthquake near the the southern coast. The death toll is now at 295 and is still rising; families are separated, roads are blocked off, and schools and many businesses have been closed until further notice. After Mexico offered generous aid and forces to assist us in recovering from Hurricane Harvey, many Americans are organizing efforts to return the gesture for our Mexican brothers and sisters.

 

If you have friends in or from Mexico, reach out to them and confirm that they and their families are safe; offer them your condolences and talk to them. “It means a lot that there are good human beings out there who care about us despite distance,” David said. Stay vigilant on social media and do what you can to help those looking for their lost loved ones; even though we’re not in the area, a retweet or share can still be helpful. You can make a tax-deductible donation at ProjectPaz.org, which will go directly toward earthquake relief, or you can donate to other non-profit organizations like UNICEF Mexico and OXFAM Mexico.


A message from Charly:
I sent you many photos and videos I took or received. Some were sent by people, some were obtained by social media… in the end, each video is showing you different zones of Mexico that were affected. I actually participated in the rescue photos I sent you – we actually found a person there. I was out for about 14 hours, moving from building to building, moving bicycles, rubble, trying to help as much as possible.
There are many things to mention. As you can see, they marked our arm… they put our name, our emergency number, our blood type, and sent us to many places in Mexico to help. I went to Xochimilco, a town called San Gregorio. There was a woman trapped, maybe around 30 years old. When we saw her face, there was silence. People were like, “Shut up! There’s someone here!” They started yelling, if there was actually someone in the building, if she was alive, to hit the concrete. And she banged on the concrete, so we knew there was definitely someone there, so we started working very hard. The building had just collapsed, it was about 3AM in the morning, and we were there for hours. We were there for about five hours trying to get the person out and alive… The funny thing was, everyone was quiet while we were working, because you must be able to hear the person inside. We must be able to hear if she was saying something, if she was moving, if she was smacking anything, whatever.
So I wanted to share that story with you. It’s one of the most emotional, amazing things that has happened to me these past couple of days.
A message from David, who sent me more organizations that are taking donations, all of which will be going to rescue and relief:
Hi Michelle! Thanks again for worry about us, fortunately Mexico city and Puebla is now full of help and volunteers, from the soldier participating in the rescues to some mothers that give lunch box to all soldiers and volunteers, and even a stand of tacos starting to work to give all the tacos free to the soldiers and marines working on the collapsed structures. However, you can still help, and we need it! There’s organizations like the Los Topos that are specialized on removing debris to search for survivors and corpses, others like the Red Cross, that treats the injuries, and at the end the federal goverment that will be in charge of rebuilding. We will need a lot of help, but if you want to help, you can help us donating by bank or internet to some organizations. I will be really gratefull if you could donate 1 or 2 dollars. Remember that 1 dólar is like 18 Mexican pesos, so any help you wanna give is truly welcome!
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