Tuesday, September 19th, 2017 started out as a normal day...
My wife and I were downtown to take care of some paperwork for our 1-year-old twins. During the process of getting the paperwork taken care of, everything stopped for the annual mandatory earthquake drill. The drill is performed once a year at 11am on the anniversary of the devastating earthquake that hit Mexico City in 1985. Prior to it taking place, I remember being frustrated that it would interrupt us getting our paperwork taken care of on time.
After the drill, when the twins paperwork was finalized, we headed off to the nearby San Juan Market for some lunch. We had just finished lunch and were paying when I felt an odd sensation beneath my feet. This was a new sensation for me. Growing up in England, I had never experienced an earthquake. Having lived in Los Angeles for some time, I had experienced a couple of very small tremors, but as I lived in a building on wheels, and built with earthquakes in mind the sensation was slight. 10 days prior, I had been snapped back to reality from a dream when I woke as an 8.1 earthquake shook our house in Mexico City. This was a shock to the system as I saw the house move in ways I did not think possible during the minute of the quake. The epicentre of this one was over 1,000 miles away, and so the damage was minimal, but a serious shock to the system nonetheless. While we did not know it at the time, the 7.1 earthquake we had just experienced was much closer, with an epicentre only 70 miles south of Mexico City. I grabbed what I thought was my wife’s hand and fled to the nearest exit and what I assumed would be safety on the street outside.
Once outside there was both panic and chaos. You could see the expression on the older Mexican people as if to say, this can’t be happening again, not today. It was only then that I realised I had not grabbed the hand of my wife, but a stranger. Thankfully, my wife was just a few feet behind me. We stood in both fear and bewilderment as to what was taking place.
As I looked up, I saw what was probably a 20 story glass office building wobble from side to side. My mind could not fully grasp what I was seeing. Beside it, there was the shell of a building under construction and the two buildings simply began moving in sync. We fled down a packed Av Arcos de Belén. The population and density of people and cars here in Mexico City is hard to imagine and yet the people on the street had a weird calm, this is probably what happens when humans can’t fully comprehend what is happening to them and then they go into survival mode. Once I had my bearings and knew that my wife and I were both ok, my brain quickly switched from thinking of our survival to that of my 3 children. As quickly as we could, while trying repeatedly to connect with my eldest son's school and home where our twins were, we rushed to where our car was parked and started to try and navigate the drive home.
The streets home were packed with people and traffic. We had no phone service and we could not reach our 5-year-old son's school or our twins who were at home with the in-laws. We live in the Villa Coapa section of Mexico City, further south of the city. We did not know it at the time, but this area had sustained some of the worst damage to buildings and loss of life. For 2 hours we could not reach anyone. It took us over 4 hours to make the 14km journey home.
After 2 excruciating hours, we heard that our son and all of his teachers and school friends were safe. We also got word that he had been picked up by his abuelito and a neighbour and taken home. We then heard that our twins were all ok at home. With this knowledge, the worst 2 hours of my life were now over. We still had to navigate the remainder of our journey home, nervous as we passed high-rise buildings, yet astounded by the calm manner in which the citizens of Mexico City were handling this event.
There was no power, and yet outside each business and government building, there was order and safety. Designated employees maned the tape to help corral the people, to keep them safe from the buildings and from the traffic on the street. At each intersection, where traffic would normally be controlled by traffic lights, regular people had manned the crossings and were working together as teams to control the flow of traffic. Had these safety measures not being so well implemented, we may not have made it home safely that day.
A short five-minute walk around the corner from our house, and on the same street as my son's school is the Colegio Enrique Rébsamen school, the building that collapsed and has had such a tragic loss of life of both students and teachers. My son, Mateo played with some of the children from this school during summer camp earlier in the year. We are still trying to find out if all of his summer camp friends are ok. He is sadly still very much recalling what happened on Tuesday morning. He refused to sleep in the house on Tuesday night, so he and I slept in the car. We are still mainly living on the ground floor, sprawled between the living room, dining room and office.
For the past week, my wife and I have been taking it in turns to sleep in a tent in the front garden with our eldest son. I think it is helping him in that this is something different and new, and something he can focus on as opposed to thinking of that terrible day. He still has no school as the county is reviewing all buildings and their earthquake preparedness in light of the heartbreaking situation at the Colegio Enrique Rébsamen school. He still has his moments where he feels less than secure and wonders if the ground is moving under him. To be fair, so do I.
On a final and yet very important note, it is crucial that we do not allow the powers that be to ignore significant damage to structures that rely on the upcoming holiday season to function. We live very close to Galerias Coapa, a shopping mall that has sustained significant structural damage. We cannot place commercial interests above the health and safety of the people of Villa Coapa and the surrounding areas. The mall cannot simply undergo a cosmetic concealment of what may be underlying structural damage. Should the mall need to be closed for the holiday season, so be it. Should the mall need to be brought to the ground, in order for a stronger building to emerge, so be it. There is significant debate and concern in the local population that things will simply be rushed through in order to have a successful holiday shopping season at Galerias Coapa. While I feel for the many people who work at the mall, and their fears for their livelihood, I hope for the safety of the general public that this is not the case.