Since I started these posts on Mexico, I’ve been longing to tell this story.
At 7:18 am on Sept 19, 1985, Mexico City shook for 3-4 minutes – 412 of its larger buildings completely collapsed and 3,124 were seriously damaged. It was a magnitude 8.1 earthquake, by far the strongest in the region’s recorded history.
The epicenter was off the Pacific coast, but due to peculiarities in the bedrock and the lake bed that the city is built on, that’s where the greatest damage occurred.
The PRI govererment at the time would only admit to 5,000 deaths, but the National Seismological Service proposed 45,000 as a more likely number. Residents of the city believed many people were buried in the rubble and so never identified.
Though people outside Mexico hardly think about it now, the 1985 earthquake will never be forgotten in Mexico.
Anyone who spends much time in Mexico City notices the frequent minor earthquakes experienced there. There might be one a week. The first time it happened to me – in 1968 when the walls around me began moving silently – I thought I was seriously ill.
The city, known to Mexicans simply as the DF – pronounced ‘day efay’ – referring to the Distrito Federal, or just ‘Mexico”, (if they refer to the country, they just say ‘the republic’) had at that time about 18 million residents. It was, and still is, the cultural, industrial, political and even genetic heart of the nation. There is hardly a family anywhere in rural Mexico, among peasants or the wealthy, that doesn’t have relatives in Mexico City.
The PRI government had been in power through most of the twentieth century, but it proved so incompetent with rescue efforts (one reason they’ve lost all but one election since), that ordinary Mexicans often had to rescue themselves.
In a large apartment complex in Tlatelolco north of the city centre – with 102 buildings and 80,000 residents – many buildings were damaged and some collapsed totally. With no help coming from outside, bands of youths began digging into the mountains of rubble, rescuing who they could. As the days passed they became more and more skilled at this – before it was all over they would be famous as the Brigada de Topos de Tlatelolco (Mole Brigade of Tlatelolco).
They moved on to sites beyond Tlateloco, working in other parts of the city until they completed their most famous rescue.
Thirteen hospitals in the city were totally destroyed or badly damaged. In the city center, the Hospital Juarez, one of the oldest and largest hospitals in Mexico, with 586 beds, was totally destroyed. Many patients and healthcare workers died.
But one week following the earthquake, the Topos tunnelled their way into the heart of the hospital’s ruins where they entered the nursery and found 43 newborn babies, all of them still alive, who they carried out to safety.
Without food or water or human contact, those infants had survived a full week. Babies, it seems, go into a dormant state if they’re abandoned. For this ability to have evolved in our species, there must have been an untold number of infants who survived the death of their parents for days. The famous stories of baby foundlings being set off in rafts (Moses for example) to ride for days down rivers, or just lie abandoned in a forest, waiting for someone to stumble upon them, may sometimes be true (I read of one recently found in a dumpster, who also survived)
The ‘Miracle Babies’, as they came to be known in Mexico, have been studied closely ever since and they appear to have suffered no negative physical or cognitive consequences from their ordeal.
Some members of the Mole Brigade would go on to travel the world in the path of the worst earthquakes, training local people in self-help rescue.
For years I longed to make a trip back to Mexico City to see the consequences from the 1985 earthquake, but I wasn’t able to do that until 2003, when I found remarkable changes. But I’ll save that for another post.