MEXICO CITY—Residents remained on edge here into the late hours of the night after a 7.1 earthquake killed hundreds Tuesday. The death toll reached 217 early Wednesday morning and continues to climb. Many in Mexico City still can’t sleep.
“I’m still awake in my house just in case I have to react quickly,” said Isabel Briones, a 23-year-old student waiting for aftershocks.
The deadly earthquake came on a date with a significance that was not lost on chilangos, as Mexico City natives are known. The day marked the 32nd anniversary of the most destructive seismic event in the city’s history, a 1985 quake that killed at least 5,000 people.
Around 11 a.m. local time, the city’s alarm system sounded in an annual drill that commemorates the 1985 tragedy. The evacuation was calm for residents who expected the alarm.
The same can not be said for the rest of the day, after the alarm sounded for real.
Just after 1 p.m., the city started to shake. As people evacuated from the second floor of a building in the Reforma Iztaccihuatl neighborhood, where I was at the time, the tranquility of the earlier drill had evaporated. Many residents let out shrieks and shrill cries as they scurried down the stairs and rushed outside. One woman took the lead, instructing us to huddle together and avoid areas where wires could fall.
Throughout the city, trees, buildings and lamp poles swung violently from side to side. Students left their classrooms and drivers abandoned their cars on the road. Windows broke and gas tanks exploded.
“It was total chaos. There were so many people screaming and so many people crying. Lots of people were hysterical,” said Briones. “We didn’t know if we were safer in the streets or inside my house.”
Once the shaking subsided, residents recovered their composure as fear and adrenaline dwindled. Then, fingers went into full drive typing messages to family members and friends to make sure everyone was safe. For residents who know just how deadly earthquakes can be, a delayed response can lead to worries of the worst possible scenario.
Less than two weeks ago, Mexico was hit with an 8.4 earthquake that left nearly 100 dead, with the most destruction in Juchitan, Oaxaca. The capital city felt the temblor, but was spared the death and destruction seen in other parts of the country.
On Tuesday, the 7.1 earthquake with a closer epicenter had a much stronger impact in Mexico City.
Of the 217 deaths reported so far, 86 are in Mexico City, 71 in Morelos, 43 in Puebla, and 17 in other states. More than 40 buildings collapsed in the capital, with a few neighborhoods, such as Condesa, Roma, and the Historic Center feeling the brunt of the damage. At least 21 children were killed when a school collapsed and many more are feared buried in the wreckage of the building.
Walking the streets of Roma and Condesa, shattered glass littered the pavement where windows had fallen out of some buildings. Parts of the sidewalk were roped off to protect passersby from more falling shards of glass.
In places where entire buildings collapsed, people formed a human chain to get rid of debris and reach those who were trapped, reported Ramon Bielma, a 31-year-old Mexico City resident who was in Condesa on Tuesday.
“For me it was surprising to see. The truth is that I didn’t expect something like that. I was just walking in Condesa as always to go get a bite to eat,” Bielma told me. “Of course I knew about the earthquake but I didn’t expect something so tragic and with so many people in the street removing debris and so many ambulances, firefighters, and the military.”
Power outages meant that traffic lights had stopped working. In some cases, officials arrived to direct traffic. In others, citizens took the initiative to try to put some order to the chaos of the city. Without power, many businesses shut down, including supermarkets and corner stores. Small mom-and-pop shops were the only option for some chilangos to buy candles and water later into the night.
Gas leaks continued to be a danger throughout the day, with some small fires breaking out. In the Roma district, a man who lit up a cigarette nonchalantly was scolded for doing so in an area where there was a confirmed gas leak.
As news of the damage spread through Facebook, Twitter, and WhatsApp groups, citizens sprung into action. A crowdsourced list began to circulate and chilangos showed up at key locations with medicine, water, or a helping hand.
As the sun went down and some parts of the city still remained without power, many residents finally went inside, a contrast from the daytime when the streets were filled with people helping out with the rescue efforts, on their way to check on loved ones, or simply waiting outside for fear of another quake.
Still, rescue efforts continue and sirens can be heard every so often, more frequently than usual.
“I’ve felt strong earthquakes but I’ve never seen so many buildings collapsed,” said Bielma. “But I also haven’t seen so many people helping out.”