The Debris of Memory of an Earthquake in Mexico

Seeing the images of the September 19 earthquake in Mexico, for me, revived the vivid memories of the 1985 quake, which took place on the exact day of the month and which I happened to cover as a reporter for the Los Angeles Times.

September 19, 2017: Tragic history repeats.

So many of the scenes are identical: the random array of toppled buildings, some fallen in on themselves, others listed to one side or another; dust rising from ruined neighborhoods; desperate clawing at rubble by impromptu rescuers; the unimaginable tragedy of collapsed schools; confusion of worried residents in the streets of a giant metropolis. The impressive volunteer rescuers put on display the citizen’s can-do spirit in the face of adversity–especially since the government seems not to have on hand quick response teams, neither now nor 32 years ago.
Yet there were major differences that made the 1985 quake singularly different and even more tragic. Then, the earthquake registered an 8.1 on the Richter scale, thousands of times more powerful. Even more significant was the length of time the city shook: more than a minute and a half, compared to yesterday’s 20 seconds.
The location of much of the damage is also different, which had an effect: in 1985, the destruction was centered on Mexico City’s Central downtown district, which is built on the ancient lake bed of Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital. This had the effect of multiplying the impact as the soft subsoil oscillated back and forth in waves across the valley as if someone was shaking a plate of gelatin. The buildings atop of the this shaky foundation swayed uncontrollably for a long time. The most badly damaged structures were higher than five stories. More than 3,000 buildings were destroyed and thousands more needed repairs.
A big skyscraper that housed courtrooms buckled in half. The central telephone office, through which all long distance calls passed, was damaged and a communications tower caught on fire. Hotels fell down, as did large public housing complexes. The studios of the TV major outlet Televisa, was put out of commission when a broadcast tower fell on its studio. Several schools and other public buildings caved in.
In all, about 10,000 people died, according to some estimates. It would have been many more, except the quake struck at around 7:20 in the morning (one iconic image of the disaster was the photo of the outdoor clock next to the fallen, once grand, Regis Hotel that had stopped at that hour.)

September 19, 1985: The clock and ex-Hotel Regis.

This September 19, much of the damage appears to have taken place in the south part of the city, beyond the lake bed, though some central districts were also hit.

It will be interesting to see whether the government of Ernesto Pena Nieto will respond with both rescue efforts, aid and eventually reconstruction quickly enough to douse criticism of the sort that dogged President Miguel de la Madrid in 1985. His government and the then-perpetually ruling Partido Revolucionario Instituctional (PRI) came under fire for ineptitude. The quake exposed the vast corruption underlying the collapse of shoddy construction, especially in government-built buildings. De la Madrid himself did not speak publicly until three days after the event. In the next presidential election, which the PRI one through well-practiced fraud, his party lost half the votes in the capital.
Pena Nieta is also from PRI.
As far as journalistic coverage of the event, it is obviously striking the difference in technology that has made it possible for the globe to witness the event almost in real time.
Thirty-two years ago, there was no Internet nor video phone cameras nor satellite phones. Because the central telephone office burned down and Univision’s office downtown was damaged, it was feared–and word went out–that central Mexico City was totally destroyed.
For this disaster, mobile phone videos, decentralized communication and the Internet brought images of the disaster out almost immediately, including recordings of buildings as they fell. In 1985, I had to fly to Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, and cross the Rio Grande to Laredo Texas, from where I phoned in my story. My editor at the time, Linda Matthews, when she got on he phone, said words I never heard before or since from an editor: I love you.
It wasn’t an expression of affection, exactly. She thought I was dead.

Daniel Williams

Published by Daniel Williams

I am a former correspondent who, for more than 30 years, did time in China, Southeast Asia, Central America, Mexico, the Middle East, Europe and Africa and covered wars that went from episodic to non-stop. My book, "Forsaken," about Christian persecution in the Middle East came out January, 2016. NextWarNotes is a news and analysis blog designed to fill gaps, provide background and think about what’s next. The name of the site comes from a 1935 article by Ernest Hemingway in Esquire Magazine called “Notes on the Next War,” in which he predicted the coming conflagration in Europe, told why it would happen and warned Americans to stay out.

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