The 12 story Nuevo Leon apartment building lies wrecked. More than 400 perished there.
Thursday September 19th, 1985
The sprawling metropolis of 20 million people is slowly coming back to life. Shops are opening, classes are about to start. Men and women get ready for work. Children eat their breakfast before starting another school day. The mariachis at Plaza Garibaldi are turning into their apartments, finally getting some shut eye after playing all night for drunken revelers. Independence Day was three days ago, time to get rest. The night shift at Juarez Hospital is getting off and the morning shift is just arriving. Doctors and nurses mill about, newborns cry in their cribs and patients lie on their beds. Guests sleep inside their rooms at the luxury Hotel Regis. Nearby, Joggers sprint by in Alameda Park. The morning rush hour is about to begin.
Hundreds of miles away in the Pacific Ocean, off the coast of Michoacan near the port of Lazaro Cardenas, deep beneath the earth's crust, two tectonic plates collide, rock and earth crashing and gnashing, producing the energy of dozens of atomic bombs. Hell is about to be unleashed in central Mexico.
A deep rumbling sound rolls over the mountains of Jalisco and Michoacan, then a jolt, then shaking. Slow at first then becoming more violent. The people gathered for morning mass inside the main cathedral of Ciudad Guzman, Jalisco scream and pray to the Lord to have mercy. The priest, struggling to stay on his feet, yells at everyone to gather near the church's massive stone pillars. Then the two bell towers crumble and fall on a dozen people, the first victims of the massive quake. A mountain slides away and buries a dozen farmers in nearby Atenquique, a dozen adobe homes collapse in Jalisco, Michoacan and Guerrero. A multi-story resort hotel in Playa Azul, Michoacan collapses. Power is knocked out to Guadalajara.
A minute later the quake hits Mexico City. Anchorwoman Lourdes Guerrero is doing her morning news show when the shaking starts:
"Do not panic, ill give you the time, 7:19 am, a quake is being felt in Mexico City, light shaking..."
Then the show is knocked off the air. Televisa Chapultepec's main transmission tower has crumpled, collapsing the huge News Department building and burying a hundred people.
Motorists on Paseo de la Reforma stop their cars and scramble out of their cars. They see the skyscrapers that line the avenue shaking and swaying, some buildings actually smashing into each other. Broken glass and concrete dust falls to the sidewalks. They lean on their cars and hold on to their open doors as to not fall while the ground heaves.
Students cry in terror as the CONALEP college comes crashing down. Hotel Romano near CONALEP also collapses, its floors pancaking down and crushing people in between. Crowded Super Leche cafeteria breaks apart and completely collapses, the famous diner now a pile of broken concrete and bodies. Two of three wings of the 12 story Nuevo Leon apartment building collapse, people screaming as the building falls over backward and comes crashing to earth.
Nurses,doctors and patients scream as Hospital Juarez sways and all 12 floors collapse one atop another and finally fall to earth in a huge cloud of dust. The seven story Gynecology wing at General Hospital also collapses, entombing newborns and mothers.
The steam room at the historic Hotel Regis explodes, and the building collapses, entombing hundreds of guests.
The shaking finally stops. People on the outskirts of the city wonder what has happened, they felt a slight tremor, probably nothing of importance. However an ominous sign: All television stations are off the air. People downtown begin to survey the damage. Downtown Mexico City looks like a war zone. Hundreds of buildings have collapsed. Thousands of people are trapped. The smell of smoke and dust fill the air. Broken glass and crumbs of concrete litter the streets. The subway is paralyzed. Commuters get off the stopped trains and orderly file out of the tunnels and stations.
The radio stations begin to report what has happened. This is no small tremor. This is starting to look like a major catastrophe. There is no power downtown, no water. Radio reports say Televisa has collapsed. 77 are dead there. Hospital Juarez is now a monstrous pile of rubble. General Hospital has fallen. Many government buildings are piles of rubble now. The Ministry of Communications and Transport building's top floors collapsed and its microwave antenna useless.40 are reported dead there. The Federal District Attorney General's Offices also were destroyed.
The American Airlines Headquarters building next to the National Lottery Building had its top 8 of its 12 floors crunch down and only 4 remained. The Ministry of Labor and Social Protection on Dr Vertiz Street was wrecked. The old building housing the city's telephone and telex lines on Victoria Street was destroyed. The city was without communication to the outside world.
Burger Boy Restaurant on Belisario Dominguez St. was ruined. So was the notorious La Palestina Bar near El Zocalo. Several Cinemas and Theaters were reduced to broken masonry and steel.
The Ministry of Protection and Traffic Safety has practically collapsed in its entirety. The Ministry of Commerce and Industrial Development (SECOFI) is "like a crumbled cookie". The two towers of the Civil Courts on Ninos Heroes Street are leveled. Seven substations of the Federal Electrical Commission lay wrecked on the ground. Several condominium high rises in Colonias Roma, Narvarte and Doctores, were huge piles of broken concrete and steel.
Hotel Principado on Jose Maria Iglesias Street near Monument to the Revolution collapsed, the only survivor being a baby that miraculously crawled out of the rubble and fire. The De Carlo Hotel, the Principados neighbor, collapsed in the middle with the top part of the building leaning back and spilling bed, mattresses and people out to the street below.
The Del Prado Hotel , next to the crumpled Ministry of the Navy, had to be evacuated due to serious damages: Diego Riveras famous mural in the lobby was undamaged. Hotel Versailles was smashed. The Roble and Alameda cinemas were no more. The 21 story Pino Suarez building is lying wrecked on the street.
The Latinamerican Tower, Pemex Headquarters and the Mexicana Airlines building are still standing.
Hotel de Mexico, one of the cities' tallest buildings is undamaged. Three huge apartment buildings in the Multifamiliar Presidente Juarez are monstrous piles of debris, A1, B2, and C3 have completely failed and several dead and injured are trapped in the debris. The Banamex building is down and the top floors have pancaked onto the lowers on the Atlas Building near Super Leche.
The top level of La Merced market had fallen onto the lower level, flattening cars. Several sweatshops on San Antonio Abad Avenue have collapsed into huge mounds of rubble entombing dozens of seamstresses. The apartment buildings housing several Mariachi band members barely going to sleep after playing all night at Plaza Garibaldi have also turned into a collective tomb for the people inside. The National College for Professional Education, CONALEP is a pile or rubble with dozens of students trapped or dead.
Residents, taco vendors, street sweepers and taxi drivers begin to swarm over the collapsed buildings, searching for signs of life.
"Anyone here? Anyone alive?!" Survivors are pulled out of the rubble by neighbors using their bare hands.
Jacobo Zabludovsky, Mexico's famous 24 Horas news anchor, is now driving through the devastated city, using his car phone to describe to viewers and listeners what he sees. Driving by Televisa Chapultepec he utters the words "the place where I work, the place where I spend more hours than my own home, is gone, destroyed. This is the worst catastrophe to befall this city ever..."
The iconic Angel statue, toppled during a 1957 earthquake, remains atop the column on the traffic circle on Reforma Ave.
Hotel Regis is now on fire. The walls of Colegio San Juan Bosco have caved in, killing the Chemistry teacher and her 25 students.
The city government assures FIFA that all soccer stadiums are undamaged and the city is ready to host World Cup 1986
The government gives a gross understatement to the press. 26 are dead in Mexico City. Other sources claim the death toll will reach 1000. Locatel reports 28,000 people are missing, more than 5000 are injured and flooding the city hospitals. Hospital Balbuena asks that no one be sent there anymore: it is filled to capacity. State TV says that 1500 are dead in Colonia Roma alone. Funeral Homes declare they can handle no more bodies.
President Miguel De La Madrid walks through the ruined city. Walks by Hotel Regis and announces that "Mexico is shaken but has not fallen, we are prepared to handle any disaster, we are self sufficient."
The General Ministry of Protection and Traffic Safety announced that 6,299 cadavers had been recovered. Many are being held at a soccer stadium. Another 700 in the Forensic Medical Services coroners office. Bodies are being taken by the dozens to the offices of the following boroughs: Cuahutemoc, Venustiano Carranza, Benito Juarez and Iztacalco. Relatives should come claim them otherwise they will be buried in a mass grave in 36 hours for health reasons.
Reports on radio and TV stations that have a signal say 150 are killed in the state of Jalisco. The cathedral in Ciudad Guzman has crumbled on top of the parishioners during morning mass. Part of a mountain has "slid away" in the village of Atenquique, burying several farmers on their way to their fields. Power is out in some parts of Guadalajara. No communication out of some villages in Guerrero and Michoacan. A wave is said to have swept the harbor at Lazaro Cardenas, Michoacan. Sounds like the world is ending in Mexico.
Foreign Aid is being offered by various countries. Mexico is denying all foreign aid at this time. Relief planes are landing at Mexico City after its runways checked for damage but are being held on the tarmac. Bureaucracy at its finest. Rescue workers arriving with tools at the airport are subject to inspection at Customs. Valuable rescue time is wasted while the foreign rescue teams are held at the airport.
The Government of the Federal District by decree of Mayor Ramon Aguirre declares all public functions in the city closed. Movie Theaters and other public areas are to be closed the night of the 19th until further notice.
The people rescuing others at various ruined buildings are now being kicked out by the army. Mexico City officials declare that they have no "rescue expertise and are therefore endangering their own lives and the lives of others". Many impromptu rescuers defy the orders and continue digging in the rubble. Several altercations with soldiers ensue. Rather than help, the army is in the way.
"Instead of waving your rifle why don't you grab a shovel and make yourself useful?" someone shouts. The soldier glares at the man. The army is deployed in the city of 18 million to prevent looting.
Several soldiers are seen taking jewels and money out of ruined homes. Anything of value that is not broken is being loaded into cars by men in suits who look like Judicial Police officers. TV sets, microwaves, blenders. The thugs glare at the rescuers and look around as if saying "nobody saw anything, everyone keep quiet". Then they leave.
Night falls. Rescue work still goes on. Pulling out the dead and the living. Newborn babies are being rescued alive from the ruins of Hospital Juarez, General Hospital and National Medical Center. Whats left of Hotel Regis and Salinas y Rocha Department store is a blackened, burned shell. Hundreds sleep outside for fear of further collapses or another earthquake.
Mexico's National Seismology Center reports: The earthquake was magnitude 8.1 on the Richter scale centered near the mouth of Balsas River in Michoacan state. The quake was felt as far north as Los Angeles and Houston.
An earthquake expert declares that since the quake was huge and let out a lot of energy there will be no more big quakes following this one. People can relax.
Next day, at 7:40 pm, a magnitude 7.8 quake hits an already battered Mexico City. More buildings collapse. Rescuers are killed or injured.
Weeks go by. Between 10,000 or 20,000 are dead. The final toll is unknown many bodies are being buried in mass graves. Others are being picked up along with rubble by the construction equipment brought in to clear the ruins and clear the streets as soon as possible.
Hundreds still sleep outside in tent cities. The government promises shelter and money to those who lost everything. 24 years later, many of the survivors are still waiting for that money and that shelter.
(with information from Nothing,Nobody by Elena Poniatowska)