It was called “black Thursday,” described as a war, experienced as a hell, as a catastrophe, the worst tragedy, the costliest for Mexico in that century.
7:19 a.m. on September 19, 1985. A 7.3-magnitude earthquake, with its epicenter in the Bay of Petacalco, on the boundaries between the states of Michoacán and Guerrero, caught Mexico City by surprise.
The next day, the front page of newspapers couldn’t talk about anything else. It was reported that 3,000 people had died just in the first few hours, around 50,000 families lost their homes, and at least 3,000 people were hospitalized. The death toll then added 500 tourists and 50 students that got trapped under the rubble.
There will never be an exact number
There was panic buying inside grocery stores and volunteers overflowing the streets of Mexico City, while terror had already spread to the states of Colima and Jalisco.
The night brought even more desperation with it, as the neighborhoods of Guerrero, Peralvillo, Doctores, Vallejo, Tepito, Tabacalera, Roma, Del Valle and Narvarte were plunged into total darkness. Many people had already left their homes, some others, those searching for their loved ones, walked around lost, aimlessly, unaware of what was going on.
Downtown, there were people tirelessly volunteering since 7:30 a.m. Engineers from the DDF (the governing body of what was then the Federal District, now officially known as Mexico City) led the rescue operations while a soft drink delivery truck arrived to provide beverages for the volunteers.
Nearby, on the Nuevo León building in the area of Tlatelolco, aid was urgent. With no one to coordinate them, civilians put all hands on deck to help people trapped inside the building that had collapsed down to the foundations. The tragedy kept growing as one moved forward.
At the National Medical Center, only the Congresos unit had power. All the patients that had been evacuated were taken to the Xola, Lomas Verdes, La Raza and Politécnico units. Hospital Juárez wasn’t that lucky.
The building, 12 stories tall, collapsed. Of an estimated 800 people inside at the time, only 162 were rescued alive. “Don’t be alarmed, keep calm, the earthquake will pass in a moment. Don’t go out running into the street or try to go down using elevators”.
Those were the last words spoken by a journalist at work inside the Radio Fórmula building, which just minutes later, at 7:30, collapsed on Río de la Loza Street and Cuauhtémoc Avenue. His colleagues in Televisa, hundreds of them, met the same fate.
A NEW EARTHQUAKE
According to government figures, the death toll didn’t go higher than 2,000; however, 36 hours after the earthquake, a new seismic movement hit Mexico City and made the situation worse.
By September 21, 600 people had been rescued; 4,000 were dead; 100,000 were left homeless; a total of 20,000 were living in shelters and hundreds more camping at the Zócalo; there were 28,000 people missing. The missing persons service Locatel received 1,166 calls every hour, from people searching for family and friends.
“We began hugging each other, total strangers,” said a reporter from El Universal newspaper days later, in reference to the second earthquake, which struck while he was interviewing a couple of police officers downtown.
“Pray, for God’s sake, there is nothing else to do,” said the officers, who thought they were going to die right there.
The smell of death started to emanate from the collapsed buildings and spread around the city. The number of homeless people now totaled 250,000, and there was fear of epidemics caused by the corpses.
Little by little, the news feed started to slow down, and while the death toll kept rising, the exact number will never be truly known. The fear never went away.
On September 23, began the massive demolition of 7,000 damaged buildings. A hundred thousand people lost their jobs in the main downtown area. During the weekend, there was even more chaos, as 2,000 people from the interior of the country arrived in the city looking for family members. First Lady Nancy Reagan travelled to Mexico and brought along international assistance, then the robberies began, and news about Mexico keeping its status as a World Cup host the next year were confirmed.
Thirty-three years after the country’s deadliest disaster, the death toll is still uncertain. The government, under President Miguel de la Madrid, estimated approximately 6,000 deaths but Civil Protection authorities said later the number exceeded 9,000. The Mexican Red Cross was talking about 15,000 dead, whereas the United States Embassy reported at the time that 20,000 people had died and around the world, news agencies amplified that number to 30,000.
As days went by, even the intensity scale of the earthquake kept changing. There were still 1,500 bodies under the rubble, but from the darkness, in a collapsed building on the corner of Chimalpopoca and Clavijero streets, 39 people were rescued in the middle of the demolition, as if they were born again, including nine infants.
The next year was a big celebration, as soccer left the horrors of 1985 behind, but the date will never be forgotten, and the earth would then etch it as deep as it could on Mexican culture.
SEPTEMBER 19, ANOTHER BIG DISASTER IN A NEW ERA
Generations changed yet things remained essentially the same. On September 19, 2017, there were many similarities with the earthquake of 1985, least of all the date.
On both occasions, there was an outpouring of assistance, collapsed buildings, people who, again, climbed the rubble searching for relatives or strangers that could be found alive, and just like the previous time, there was talk of how corruption killed people, but hope, solidarity and strength were bigger than everything else.
In 1985, a generation of young people defined an era. In 2017, the same happened thanks to their great effort. Technology made way for a new culture of peace and reliable information, one of help and solidarity that today joins the country together.
On September 19, a 7.1-magnitude earthquake struck the city at 13:14:40, causing the collapse of 38 buildings, one them 50 minutes after the quake. On September 22, the last person found alive was rescued from the Tlalpan apartment complex, and the body that closed the grim count was recovered on October 4, from a building located at 286 Álvaro Obregón street, one of the most symbolic sites, along the Colegio Rebsamen, a school where 26 people lost their lives, including 19 schoolchildren.
The final death toll totaled 369 deaths: 228 of them in Mexico City, 74 in Morelia, 45 in Puebla, 15 in the State of Mexico and one more in Oaxaca.
The two earthquakes that struck on September 19, in 1985 and 2017, not only shook the ground in Mexico City, shattered structures and caused buildings to collapse; they also brought out the best in every Mexican and changed concepts of life, even religious ones. The two earthquakes shook people’s awareness.