The Girl Who Wasn’t There
On Tuesday 19 September, the 32nd anniversary of the magnitude 8 earthquake that levelled large parts of Mexico City in 1985, an earthquake of magnitude 7.1 hit the city and neighbouring states. In 1985 the epicentre was off the Pacific coast, and the death toll reached at least 10,000. When that one set our house rocking back and forth at 7.17 a.m., my wife Betty and I were about to send our daughters to school. They boarded the bus and we turned on the television. For the next three days we witnessed the havoc at collapsed hospitals, hotels, and residential and office buildings. This time I was crossing Chapultepec Park, on my way to pick Betty up from the ABC Hospital. At 1.14 p.m., two hours after a planned earthquake drill and 12 days after a quake in Chiapas and Oaxaca killed at least 98 people, my taxi suddenly halted and began moving to and fro on the undulating road, while trees swayed towards and away from me. At the hospital, staff and patients were hugging the walls.
Social networks were flooded with images of screaming people running out of shaking buildings, of furniture and lighting fixtures moving wildly, of glass shattering, of buildings collapsing, of boats bobbing on the canals in Xochimilco. Once the earth stopped moving, tens of thousands of volunteers flocked to stricken buildings and neighbourhoods, bringing water, food, cleaning, and medical supplies, wielding shovels and lining up in bucket brigades to remove the debris, sorting and handing out donations to homeless residents and volunteers.
All day Wednesday and into Thursday morning, millions of Mexicans watched live coverage of the Enrique Rébsamen K-12 school in the southern part of the city, where four storeys of one wing had pancaked. In the four seconds between the alarm going off and the building collapsing, most of the 347 pupils managed to get out, but 19 children and six adults are dead.
Shortly after 8 a.m. on Wednesday, the words ‘Girl about to be rescued’ flash across the TV screen. Hundreds of soldiers, marines, police officers and volunteers, under the command of Admiral José Luis Vergara, work with picks, mallets and shovels to reach a girl thought to be trapped. A sniffer dog named Daniel has located a person. Topos (the human ‘moles’ made famous in the 1985 earthquake) crawl into the rubble and report that the girl moved her hand when they spoke to her. Smiles break out all around. A hose is inserted to deliver water and is seen to move.
A forest of wooden beams is thrust between the floors of the collapsed wing as well as between the floors of the adjoining building, both facing the schoolyard. Periodically, fists are raised asking for silence, so the rescuers can communicate or in the hope of hearing a human voice in the rubble. Helicopters and drones are asked not to fly over disaster sites.
At 9.42 a.m., rubble removal speeds up, everyone is now helmeted. Roberto Hernández, one of the 1985 topos, is interviewed. ‘We went at the buildings as if they were Swiss cheese,’ he says. ‘You have to wriggle in chest to the ground, breathe shallowly, fight against panicking.’ When he suggests that corruption during construction is to blame for much of the damage, it’s ‘thank you and goodbye.’
10.01 An on-site reporter says a channel is being cleared at the front of the building. A teacher has been asked to explain the building’s geography.
10.14 A man in an orange shirt wriggles into the opening, then is pulled out by the soles of his shoes. In the standing building we see books open on desks, pencils and pads, backpacks hanging on hooks. From the roof hangs a handpainted banner: ‘Strength lies in unity, long live Mexico.’ The reporter says three families are waiting under a tent.
10.41 One of the anchors says: ‘We’re starved for good news.’ A scanner is passed over the rubble and detects movement. The school has become a symbol for the entire disaster.
11.00 No further contact with the girl.
11.12 The scanner detects movement. The sniffer dog goes in, comes out, barks. The girl has been buried for 22 hours.
11.42 The admiral says the girl is on the third floor and the situation is unstable. The concrete slab above her is resting on a piece of furniture.
12.26 Jorge, a slight man in a blue sweatshirt, goes in and comes out, raising his arms.
The words ‘Girl about to be rescued’ appear on screen. Thermal cameras are used to detect body heat.
12.45 Smaller beams are being sawn and inserted to prop up the crawl space.
12.52 The admiral says they are very close to getting her out. Three female family members are waiting nearby.
13.35 Two men are feeding a lifeline into the opening.
14.15 Signs of life elsewhere in the rubble are detected.
14.43 Thermal photos are shown to the admiral. Adriana, a topo, asks permission to go into spaces too small for the men. The families are asked to write personal messages to the missing children.
17.42 The floors are still held up by the beams, but appear to be sliding down on one side. Marines will drill a hole into the collapsed roof and topos with harnesses will go in to get the girl and search for others.
18.06 Someone has spoken with the girl, now identified as Frida Sofía. She says two bodies are near her, either dead or alive. She is trapped under a granite-topped table. Betty reminds me of the 16 babies rescued from collapsed hospitals after the 1985 earthquake.
19.15 It’s raining hard.
19.51 Fists are raised. Whistles blow. Millions of ears strain to hear a sound during three minutes of silence. The topo raises a thumb, but then scratches his bristles. The TV reporter is fighting tears. The anchor tells her to keep cool. The scanner has detected three separate heat sources. Measurements are being taken at the opening.
21.09 A message is given to the families. The topos go in again. Now they can stand up in the opening.
22.09 A pathway to Frida has been opened. She has apparently said there are five other girls, but there is no proof of this. A blue tin holding white flowers and an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe have been placed at the entrance. The rescue operation has been going on for 12 hours and 40 minutes. National attention has crystallised on the plight of a single child.
22.39 Possible bad news. Rescuers working on the street side of the building say she is not on the third floor but on the second, contradicting the admiral.
23.28 We are surprised to hear the secretary of education say they have not been able to contact Frida’s family, and that there are no families on site.
23.33 Everyone is ordered off the roof after an earthquake alarm is received, but it turns out to be for a low-intensity aftershock in Oaxaca.
23.48 An extinguisher explodes. Part of the roof is collapsing. Two topos and an army captain say they’ve had verbal contact with a 12-year-old girl called Sofía.
Shortly after 9 a.m. on Thursday, the TV shows the propped-up structure partially collapsed. Sometime around 5 a.m. a woman’s body was retrieved from the rubble.
At 14.13, the undersecretary of the navy announces that there are no children left in the school, that there is no child named Frida Sofía, that all the pupils are accounted for and are either at home, in hospital or dead. He says there may still be a maintenance woman alive in the rubble, as traces of her blood have been tracked. ‘We never knew anything about this information about a girl,’ he says. The TV anchors admit that errors are possible, but insist you can’t deny what you have said. The reporters passed on the information as it was given them by the authorities.
15.22 Admiral Vergara calls the anchors to say that he was relieved of his post at noon. He points out that he consistently opposed bringing in heavy machinery.‘This isn’t a question of ghosts,’ he says. ‘We are not hiding anything.’
Reports from the school were interspersed with live updates from other sites of devastation, such as Alvaro Obregon 286, a flimsy-looking seven-storey glass-fronted building (I just found it on Google Maps). Family members insisted that the rescue work for more than 16 people continue, and pleaded that no heavy machinery be brought in to clear the site.
In the Roma neighbourhood, on the corner of Medellín and San Luis Potosí, Karina called to her brother Erick Gaona Garnica through a megaphone: ‘Your daughter is fine, your wife is fine, your parents are fine, brother, I’m not leaving until you come out.’ Erick’s body was later found by a Belgian Shepherd named Chichí.
At Coquimbo 911, we saw family members complaining of a lack of help at the collapsed seven-storey building; seven residents have been rescued, three bodies recovered, and three people are still missing.
At a four-storey building on Chimalpopoca and Bolívar, containing garment workshops and a toy storeroom, only 20 of more than 100 workers and owners escaped through the bottleneck on the stairs. They had not been allowed to take part in Tuesday morning’s drill.
At a collapsed seven-storey building on Petén and Emiliano Zapata, thousands were searching for 11 missing people.
In Xochimilco, in San Gregorio Atlapulco, at least 100 houses have been damaged, the bells fell from the church tower and the roof came off. We saw a psychologist walking with her arm around a teenager.
Residents fear (and hope) that two 19-storey buildings in the hard-hit Roma-Condesa neighbourhood may be demolished; both monuments to corruption were empty for years but recently refurbished.
Near the epicentre, in Jojutla, Morelos, where hundreds of homes were destroyed, a wake was held in the street for an elderly woman who was cooking when the quake hit.
There have been reports of drivers being held up while their cars were stuck in traffic, of looting in buildings abandoned by residents distrustful of their sturdiness, of thefts from collection sites. And we have endured speeches by politicians, peppering the news and views of topos, soldiers, police and volunteers working at the sites of devastation.
So far, according to official figures, there have been 286 deaths, including 148 in Mexico City, where 38 buildings collapsed, 30 more are at risk of collapse and 3848 have been damaged. In Puebla there are 45 dead, 1632 homes destroyed, 9772 damaged. In Morelos 33 towns were hit and 73 people died. In Veracruz parents are afraid to send their children to 144 damaged schools. Residents evacuated from public housing are waiting for the government to rehouse them. Five million people have signed an online petition demanding that government funds apportioned to political parties for the July 2018 elections be used instead for earthquake relief. So far two parties (Morena and PRI) have agreed to renounce a portion of their allotments.
According to Aztec legend, the era of the Fifth Sun (which we are now in) will end with earthquakes, and the tzitzimime, the monsters of twilight, will devour the remains of humankind and take over the world.
I spoke to the New York Times on 23 September 1985: ‘Now more than ever it’s glaringly obvious that corruption is a disastrous builder. The number of public buildings, including government offices, public housing, schools and hospitals, that were destroyed in the earthquake is alarming. However, it’s not by chance that the Historic Center in downtown Mexico City, built to last, survived both earthquakes.’
In 1985 people lost their fear of and respect for government officials, regarding them with mounting distrust. In the face of official inertia, Mexico City residents went out into the streets to save their families, friends and strangers in admirable acts of solidarity. How many of the buildings that fell this week were constructed and maintained according to the rules? The 1985 earthquake changed Mexican society; will this one? Who, if anyone, was the girl known as Frida Sofía? But there is no mystery about one thing: Mexicans stand together in the face of adversity, making the victims their own.