[Daniel Alarcón, host]: Thanks for listening to Radio Ambulante. Tomorrow, start your day with “Up First”, NPR’s news podcast. In an Apple Podcast review, Eve Bethel wrote: “Concise and comprehensive. I listen to Up First every morning on my walk to work. It gives me a great summary of the top news stories during the day and the upcoming week.” Wake up with Up First, tomorrow morning on the NPR One App and wherever you listen to podcasts.
Welcome to Radio Ambulante, from NPR. I’m Daniel Alarcón.
Mexico City. Tuesday. September 19. 1:15 in the afternoon.
[Raquel Villareal]: Well, I was on an Uber, on my way to Reforma.
[Julián Vélez]: I calmly went into the bathroom at my office.
[Diana Amador]: I was in bed sending an email.
[Brenda Barrón]: I felt a bit dizzy.
[Irene Garibay]: And the house started to creak.
[John Gibler]: The movement was strong, like up and down.
[Irene Garibay]: I thought there was an underground bomb, that we were being attacked, that the earth was going to open up and at any time…Well, I thought it was the end of the world.
[Érick López]: The way the building was moving, if people used the stairs, they were going to fall.
[Diana Amador]: Paintings were falling, the mirror was falling, bookcases were falling, the windows started creaking.
[Tatiana García]: And I started to see how all the houses around me were shaking and the windows looked like jello.
[Irene Garibay]: And the house looked as if it were made out of play-doh, it was moving like this, the whole…the structure was cracking and the chimney fell, and it started crumbling like a cookie.
[Tatiana García]: Clouds of cement, dust, concrete. Everything was flying.
[Andrés Azpiri, reporter]: I was sitting down, working on an episode for Radio Ambulante. The first thing I felt was a blow, going up and down. I thought it was a garbage truck. They make the ground shake a little bit every time one passes by. I stood up and in just a few seconds I realized it was not a truck. I went out to the garden, which is behind the house, and for a moment I thought I was safe. But then I realized that the earthquake was so strong that the house next to the garden could collapse. I ran as fast as I could through the house to get to the street.
[Daniel]: The voice we just heard is from Andrés Azpiri, our sound designer. He lives in Coapa, a neighborhood that’s part of Coyoacán, one of the most affected areas after the earthquake on September 19.
When he managed to get outside, he ran into his uncle, who lives next door.
[Andrés]: So it was over, and well, my first stupid question, a rhetorical question, was: “That one was stronger than the last one, right? The one on September 7.” Hoping he would say: “No! The one on the 7th was stronger.” But we all knew that, of course, this one had been stronger. And the neighbors were there, they were calm, but clearly wondering: “what is going on?”
[Daniel]: They didn’t immediately know how bad this earthquake had been, how much damage it had done. Through a neighbor he found out that his parents were OK. So, at that moment, what he wanted, above everything else, was to get in touch with his girlfriend, who works in one of the other heavily affected areas: Colonia Roma. He tried calling her, but the service was down. He went back home —where he also has his recording studio— to see the damage. The light were down. A big, heavy monitor that was anchored to the floor had fallen. Some microphones and a floor lamp too, but he didn’t really care.
[Andrés]: It’s like you’re still in a state of shock, making sure everything is OK. And I kept trying…checking to see if the phone signal came back, and nothing, nothing, nothing. So I went back to eat some jícama, trying to stay calm, and then my uncle yelled: “Andrés! Let’s go to the park, they’re telling us to leave because there’s a gas leak!”
[Daniel]: They walked to a park a few blocks away from his house.
[Andrés]: And when we get there I realize that a lot of my neighbors are elderly, that they’re in wheelchairs and have oxygen tanks. And yes, a lot of people were scared.
[Daniel]: Andrés couldn’t stay still. He walked around the park, and sometimes he would pay attention to reports on the radio, coming from cars parked around the park. He just heard what you always hear when there’s an earthquake: “Follow the safety protocols, stay calm, don’t go back to your building”…And since he didn’t hear panic in the radio hosts’ voices, he thought that everything was fine.
In the park he ran into a neighbor who was getting messages on WhatsApp, and…
Andrés: She started getting messages with lists of collapsed buildings. And I didn’t really believe it. I was in denial. “Rebsamen school, collapsed; this building in la Roma, collapsed; that building, collapsed.” And I thought “No, no way.” “Galerías Coapa —which is like the closest mall to my house—, parking lot collapsed.” And I was like: “No way, it’s just those message chains sent around through WhatsApp.”
[Daniel]: Sitting in the park, they could hear helicopters, one after another. And they kept getting reports about collapsed buildings. They spent the whole afternoon there, in the park, unable to leave. By the time Andrés returned to his studio, 6 hours after the earthquake, it was nighttime. He realized the power and the lights were back up and that he had Internet connection. He talked to his friends and family, and with us, the Radio Ambulante team. We had been calling him the whole afternoon to check if he was OK.
And, well, a friend told him about the collapse of a particular building that was very close to his house.
[Andrés]: It’s a building that in fact is actually two buildings, one in front of the other. And I’m sure they’re connected somehow. They’re residential buildings. Each one is about 5 stories high.
[Daniel]: Feeling at ease knowing that everyone he knew was OK, he entered a different state. He wanted to go there and help. It was the closest collapse, just a two-minute drive, but…
[Andrés]: A voice inside my head was saying: “Don’t go. It’s dark, it could be dangerous, because of insecurity, but also because there could be another collapse or something.” But the need to go, to do something, was overwhelming, you know?
[Daniel]: He grabbed some mandarin oranges and some water, and he left. When he got to the building, the first thing he saw was…
[Andrés]: The street was cordoned off by authorities, and there were a lot of…The first thing I saw were a lot of young people, with their helmets and everything, organizing like: “Bring some food! That’s what we need!” A lot of people working.
[Daniel]: The neighbors had take water for the rescue workers, and also shovels, picks, buckets…everything needed to remove the rubble. Andrés gave the volunteers the mandarin oranges. He offered to help, but they told him that it was best to wait for the next shift.
[Andrés]: There’s a point where you can become a nuisance, you know? It can even look a little bit morbid. And you’re also obstructing the work of those who are actually doing something, you know? So I decided to go back home.
[Daniel]: He didn’t get much sleep that night. He would wake up every hour, check news on his cellphone. A lot of people in the city were unable to sleep that night. They were worried, anxious. Many were left homeless…And those who had spent hours removing debris felt, well, pure adrenaline.
The next day he got together with a friend, and they went to the same collapsed building.
Now there was heavy machinery removing rubble around the site. They weren’t going into the building with the machines, because it was too dangerous. The meticulous work of moving the debris in search of survivors was done by rescuers and volunteers, by hand.
[Andrés]: It was very noisy with all the euphoria and the movement…and suddenly they asked for silence. And the silence was…absolute, it felt very strong…
(SOUNDBITE FROM YOUTUBE VIDEO)
[Rescuer workers]: [Yelling] Silence! Silence!
[Daniel]: Andrés and his friend had come with shovels they had bought at a nearby hardware store. They were hoping to help remove debris, but there were so many volunteers that they couldn’t really do much. The same thing happened on the third day…
[Andrés]: I felt a little bit frustrated, thinking, “they don’t need anymore hands at the moment, but I have to do something.” So I decided to take out my Iphone and see if I could find people willing to talk, you know? And that’s when I met Rogelio…
[Daniel]: Rogelio is not a professional rescue worker, he was there as a volunteer. He’s in his thirties…
[Andrés]: He’s about 1.68, with short, kind of blond hair.
[Rogelio Cisneros]: I was in downtown Coyoacán. I was about to send some mail through Correos de México, and the building started to creak. So I got out, and when I was outside the alarm went off.
[Andrés]: He looked tired, like he literally hadn’t slept for days.
[Rogelio]: This is where I was born, where I grew up, lived, and where my family and all my friends live. Even the people that were trapped. I knew all of them.
[Andrés]: He told me he had lost track of time while he was working there.
[Rogelio]: At one point someone said, “it’s 5:30 in the morning,” and I thought it was 11 at night. My adrenaline was sky high.
[Andrés]: To me he looked very…dignified. Tired, but he had a really positive vibe.
[Rogelio]: And so I would rest for one hour, and then go back to work. And that’s me and all the other workers.
[Daniel]: To find out how many people were trapped in the debris, the first thing Rogelio and the rescue workers did was identify the family members that were there, standing in front of the collapsed building.
[Rogelio]: We made a list of those who were missing, and from there we also passed it on to the navy officers, the firemen, Civil Protection workers…to all those who were there helping, so they would know exactly where to look.
[Daniel]: With help from the neighbors, they also gathered data about everyone that was trapped in the rubble.
[Rogelio]: Where each person lived, their pets…Who used a wheelchair, who had diabetes, who had high blood pressure.
[Daniel]: And among the neighbors, Rogelio ran into one of his friends, Zara…
[Rogelio]: She was crying inconsolably because her mother was trapped at the very bottom of the building.
[Daniel]: Adela Peralta, Zara’s mom, is 87 years old, and she uses a walker to move around, due to a fractured hip. She was one of the 13 people who, according to Rogelio, had to be rescued.
From Tuesday in the afternoon —when the earthquake happened— until Wednesday night, they had removed the bodies of 7 people who had passed away, and rescued 5 others who were alive. But they still had to find the mother of Rogelio’s friend: Adela.
We all have a story. Every victim, every survivor. And Adela’s story is, well, unique. This 87 year old woman was sort of famous…
[Rogelio]: In her heyday she was a clown. They called her Tiki Tiki. And now, well, she currently has a live TV show in a local TV channel from Tláhuac. Entrevista a grandes personajes del medio artístico, literario, en… Cultural en general.
(SOUNDBITE FROM TV SHOW “LA HORA DE LOS SABIOS”)
[Adela]: It is an honor and infinite pleasure for me to be with you once again, in this show that’s called, “The hour of the wise.”
[Rogelio]: She interviews well-known people in the arts, the literary world…from the cultural world in general.
[Daniel]: And her children were worried. Adela has high blood pressure, diabetes, and hypoglycaemia. And she was trapped at the bottom of the building. So…
[Rogelio]: One of the firemen found a hole where one of the binomios had scratched and sniffed…
[Daniel]: Binomios, meaning dogs, who had detected someone, but they didn’t know if the person was alive. One of the firemen…
[Rogelio]: Was being pushed into the hole and he looked like a turtle in the sand. He started removing rocks, removing rocks…
[Daniel]: Until he yelled that he had found her.
[Rogelio]: And after a few minutes, as we organized the human chain to get her out, he yelled: “She’s breathing!”
[Daniel]: Rogelio and the rescue workers started moving faster…
(SOUNDBITE FROM VIDEO RECORDED BY WITNESS)
[Testigo]: In this very moment, they’re rescuing a woman who is alive.
[Rogelio]: Our adrenaline was sky high by then, and they started pulling, first the fireman from his feet —he was face down—, and then pulling, from her shoulders, from her underarms, Mrs. Adela Peralta.
(SOUNDBITE FROM VIDEO RECORDED BY WITNESS)
[Testigo]: Fireman Raúl Reyes went in to get here our.
[Rogelio]: And I got to see the part when Mrs. Adela comes out with her eyes wide open, safe, after just one last pull, looking around. And a navy officer yells: “She’s alive!”
(SOUNDBITE FROM VIDEO RECORDED BY WITNESS)
[Navy officer]: She’s alive!
[Rogelio]: Everyone started clapping, celebrating, and well, she was the last one we had to rescue. And after that, well, we started working again, believe it or not. We were overcome with everything that had happened. For a lot of us this was something new, and well, very surprising.
(SOUNDBITE FROM VIDEO RECORDED BY WITNESS)
[Bombero]: That’s all firemen! [Applause and cheers]
[Adela Peralta]: Everything fell, it was horrible. I couldn’t see because the lights went out. And so I just stayed there, praying, crying, and praying.
[Daniel]: That’s Adela. A couple hours after the rescue, Zara sent Rogelio some messages through WhatsApp, where Adela tells everything through her perspective.
[Adela]: There was buzzing and buzzing. The walls collapsed! In huge chunks! In chunks around 20 or 30 centimeters big. And I was praying, and praying, and praying. And I wondered, “And my children? Are they alive?”
[Daniel]: Zara and Adela live together. The day of the earthquake Zara went to work and Adela stayed in the living room, sitting in the sun. Around 15 minutes later, the earthquake started, and the building collapsed.
[Rogelio]: And that’s why she’s alive: there was a hole where air could go through, so she never lost oxygen, even though she was under tons of debris.
[Daniel]: Adela was the 13th person to be rescued —the last one— from the building on number 32, Rancho de los Arcos street. The sixth person from that building who was rescued alive.
We’ll be right back.
[Terry Gross, Fresh Air host]: This is Terry Gross, host of Fresh Air. In my new interview with Hillary Clinton, I asked for her reaction when Donald Trump said this about her showing up slightly late after a commercial break in a debate.
(SOUNDBITE NEWS BROADCAST)
[Donald Trump]: I know where she went! Is discusting…
[Terry Gross]: You can listen to Fresh Air on the NPR One App and wherever you get your podcasts.
[Daniel]: We’re back with Radio Ambulante, I’m Daniel Alarcón.
[Diana Amador]: After the earthquake, the whole city entered a bubble where time stopped. Life stopped.
[Brenda Barrón]: There’s like a silence which is very, very, very particular to earthquakes. And we were in silence, everyone was very, very shocked.
[Julián Vélez]: And people came out of their offices, screaming and crying…,
[Remy Lozano]: The first thing I heard was the sound of ambulances, of helicopters.
[Areli Montes]: We all tried to communicate with our family, but the signal was down.
[Adolfo Sosa]: The first thing I did was to go find my partner.
[Tatiana García]: I tried to get a hold of my father. It took me an hour and a half.
[Lili Serra]: I was able to get in touch with my son and found out that he was safe.
[José María Castro]: A lot of the buildings along that avenue were destroyed. You could see the inside of the apartments…
[Irene Garibay]: The house didn’t collapse, but it held on as if by its breath…
[Memo Villegas]: I saw about… like 10 people there, completely injured, man…
[Adriana Ortega]: No civil protection training can prepare you for this…
[Daniel]: This is a special episode, for many reasons. It’s special because it’s about an iconic city for Latin Americans. It’s special because it touched us, as a group, directly. It’s also special because of the way it was put together.
Everything we do is collaborative, everything is done as a team, but this episode perhaps even more than others. We wanted to create, in a just a few days, an audio record of what happened in Mexico. We obviously started with Andrés, but we have a lot of friends in Mexico City, a lot of connections: family, people who are close to us in the Radio Ambulante team. A lot of the voices you’ve heard so far come from them.
And one of those friends is novelist Alejandro Zambra. He’s an early friend of the show, and a voice we admire. He’s Chilean, but he moved to Mexico City a couple of months ago to live with his wife, writer Jazmina Barrera.
He published this essay in Chilean magazine Qué Pasa, and now he shares it with us.
[Alejandro Zambra]: In the Chillán earthquake, in 1939, my grandmother lost most of her family. We grew up listening to her telling the story of her mother’s death: they were in the same room, but on opposite corners, they couldn’t reach each other to hug. My grandmother, who at the time was 21 years old, spent hours swallowing dirt before her brother managed to rescue her. She miraculously survived, and she later became the funnest person on earth, but when she would tell us this story, of course, everything ended in generous weeping.
My grandmother spent the earthquake of March 1985 with us. I was playing taca-taca —table football— with my cousin Rodrigo. I remember I was winning: my white team was beating his blue team. My grandmother grabbed us by the arm to take us to the garden. She hugged us tightly, then my mom and my sister arrived and 5 or 10 agonizing seconds later, my dad. That night I thought, with these exact words: so this is an earthquake.
Then, in September, came the Mexican earthquake. Glued to the TV, we watched again and again the horrible images of a destroyed Mexico City. That night I asked my dad if we could go help the victims. He laughed and explained that Mexico was far away, many hours away by plane. I felt embarrassed. I was 9 and apparently had never looked at a map. Maybe because of TV or music, I thought that Mexico was as close as Peru or Argentina.
I’m skipping ahead to February 2010. The night of the earthquake I was alone, I lived alone. I thought, like so many Chileans, that it was the end of the world. I thought, more than anything else, that I had no one to protect.
The next day I looked, among the clutter of books, for “Un hombre solo en una casa sola”, the poem by Jorge Teillier, and I learned it by heart. I wanted, maybe, to laugh at myself —at my self-pity, my sadness—, but I couldn’t laugh:
A lonely man in a lonely house
He has no desire to light the fire
He has no desire to sleep or to be awake
A lonely man in a sick house
Now my home is in Mexico City and I am less lonely than ever. And I suppose that these two consecutive earthquakes, in two weeks, have made me less of a foreigner. When the first one started, on September 7, I had my left ear and my right hand over the belly of Jazmina, my wife, who is almost 7 months pregnant. And yesterday, September 19, when the second one started, I had just written the first paragraph of this column.
It was a different column, of course: I can’t even remember what it was about.
Yesterday we walked around, sometimes we helped, sometimes we got in the way, we sent text messages, we replied to emails, we talked on the phone, in other words, like always, we did what we could, and we felt that it wasn’t much, that it wasn’t enough.
But at least, at the end of the day, we found Frank and Jovi, two of our best friends, in a park in colonia Roma. “My knee is a lot better,” Frank said, with his foolproof optimsm, immediately after placing the crutches in the back seat of the car.
For the first earthquake Frank had just had surgery and could not stand on his left foot. He went down 6 floors in his underwear and crutches, aided by Jovi, and they spent hours in the park, in front of the building, before they decided to return to the apartment, which was plagued by cracks, although, according to the engineers, without structural damage.
With yesterday’s earthquake, however, the entire building was about to collapse, and going down the 6 floors was almost impossible.
“You’re an earthquake expert, all Chileans are earthquake experts,” Frank now tells me. I respond that my specialty are Chilean earthquakes, that when it comes to Mexican earthquakes I’m just a beginner.
And we smile, as if it weren’t true.
A few years later, in the main wall of that apartment they won’t return to, Frank and Jovi hung a huge map, two by two [meters], of Mexico City. But a huge map of Mexico City is almost completely indecipherable without a magnifying glass and a whole lot of patience.
It has just started to rain, we’re still waiting for the aftershocks and we’re all very sad, but I think that I want to live here for many years, until I learn that map by heart.
[John Gibler]: In 3 hours they had set up improvised clinics, there were brigades of doctors and nurses, working.
[Brenda Barrón]: You start seeing young people, with helmets, on their bikes, carrying provisions.
[José María Castro]: People were on the streets helping and trying to rescue people, removing debris.
[Tatiana García]: And everyone was desperate, and at the same time there was a solidarity and humanity which you rarely see.
[Wilbert Torre]: Thousands of young people, students, hundreds of builders, architects, engineers…
[Érick López]: And we literally thought, “How can we help? We have these pick-up trucks. Instead of leaving them in the parking lot…well, they can carry provisions, right?”
[Carmen Alcázar]: Lately I cry about everything: when someone gives me warm soup, when I see people in the subway with their dirty boots, with scraped hands because they’ve been working.
[Daniel Vázquez]: There was a great vibe, and yeah, it was tough, man. Honestly, it was very, very strong.
[Diana Amador]: And then I saw a girl with a t-shirt that said: “We don’t know each other, but we need each other.” And I think that sums up everything that has happened after the earthquake.
[Daniel]: We finished producing this episode on Wednesday, September 27, a little over a week after the earthquake. At this time the Mexican Ministry of Interior has confirmed 337 deaths, distributed among six territories: Oaxaca, Guerrero, Estado de México, Puebla, Morelos and Mexico City. As usual after this type of catastrophe, the definitive number of human losses will not be known for several weeks.
Although media attention has focused on the capital, in other states, like Oaxaca, the destruction has been greater and it has added to damage already caused by the earthquake on September 7. In any case, solidarity networks have also been organized in other areas, setting an example for the rest of Latin America.
Thanks to everyone who sent us audio via Whatsapp: Jaled Abdelrahim, Carmen Alcázar, Diana Amador, Rafael Arvizu, Julio Barajas, Ana Barbara Barrón, Brenda Barrón, Héctor Antonio Barrón, Germán Campos, José María Castro, Tatiana García, Izara García, Pamela Garibay, Irene Garibay, John Gibler, Mariana Gonzalez, Remy Lozano, Eva Luna, Areli Montes, Miguel Morquecho, Daniela Ocaranza, Coquis Quiroz Teyssier, Patricia Ruvalcaba, Lili Serra, Aguri Serra, Adolfo Sosa, Wilbert Torre, Alejandro Torres, Daniel Vázquez, Julián Vélez, José Carlos Baltazar, Raquel Villarreal and Memo Villegas.
We also want to thank Rogelio García, Francisco Goldman, Érick López, Jovi Montes Hernández, and Alejandro Zambra. Thanks also to the Peralta family.
This story was produced and edited by the editorial team at Radio Ambulante, which includes Camila Segura, Luis Fernando Vargas, Silvia Viñas and me, with the help of Andrés Azpiri and Andrea Betanzos, our program coordinator. The sound design and music is by Andrés Azpiri.
The rest of the team includes Desiree Bayonet, Jorge Caraballo, Ryan Sweikert, Barbara Sawhill, David Trujillo and Elsa Liliana Ulloa. Maytik Avirama is our editorial intern. Carolina Guerrero is the CEO.
A special shout out to our producer Luis Trelles in San Juan, Puerto Rico. We’re thinking about you, Luis. A big hug for you, and for all our boricua friends.
Radio Ambulante is produced and mixed on Hindenburg PRO.
Learn more about Radio Ambulante and this story on our website: radioambulante.org. Radio Ambulante tells the stories of Latin American. I’m Daniel Alarcón. Thanks for listening.