The wristwatch and the flashlight – translation
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[Daniel Alarcón]: This is Radio Ambulante from NPR. I’m Daniel Alarcón.
Buenos Aires. Monday, July 18, 1994. Horacio Paz was listening to the radio in the plastics factory where he worked. On his left wrist he wore a ’74 Citizen Quartz watch which had belonged to his father. As a child he had always dreamed of owning it.
[Horacio Paz]: I once said to my dad, “When you die, I’m going to get that watch. My dad took it off and said, “Here, why wait for me to die? You can have the watch.” And I have worn it since I was, yeah, 17, 18 years old, I have worn that watch.
[Daniel]: It was a cold winter morning, and he could barely hear anything over the machine noise. But the factory was not his only job. He was 29 years old, and he was also a firefighter. And not just any firefighter: He was a member of the Special Rescue Group. He had to be attentive to any emergency that occurred in the city.
His watch showed 9:53 when it all started.
[Horacio]: I was setting up a machine to put out a production run and then I heard the voice of a guy who sounded worried. He started to tell what happened. First, they said there was a landslide.
[Daniel]: At the same time, not far from the factory, another member of the Special Rescue Group, Fernando Souto, was riding in a minibus with a group of young firefighters. He was 21 years old. He had always admired the bravery of men who faced fire, and now he was one of them.
[Fernando Souto]: And I was coming back from a training session, I remember on the highway, on a cell phone with several, several firefighters. We heard it; the explosion seemed . . . very far away. But I heard it.
[Daniel]: Dr. Carlos Russo, on the other hand, did not hear anything. At 9:53 he was on duty at the Pirovano Hospital, in the Coghlan neighborhood, north of the city. That Monday morning, he shouldn’t have been working.
[Carlos Russo]: My shift was on Tuesdays. But that day I was substituting for someone.
[Daniel]: What he did hear was the emergency medical line begin to go crazy. He was 41 years old and he was always watching out for those alerts.
[Carlos]: 30 calls, 40 calls to the emergency line 107 letting us know that this happened, and that happened, and the other happened.
[Daniel]: It was not very clear what had actually happened. There was talk of a collapse on 633 Pasteur Street, almost 9 kilometers south of the hospital, where the Argentine Israelite Mutual Association, AMIA, was located.
A few minutes before 9:53 a.m., maintenance worker Martín Cano was doing a round through the six floors of the AMIA building with a coffee cart. He delivered breakfast to more than 80 people who worked at the site. On his way, he had to go through the administration, the Jewish Scientific Institute, the library, the museum and other offices that handled almost all the relations and activities of the Jewish community in the country.
He had worked there for a year, but this was the first time he had been a waiter, covering for a colleague who was on vacation. He was 20 years old and got up every day at 5 in the morning to be on time for work. He had to travel almost two hours from his house in Merlo, in the Buenos Aires suburbs—a bus, a train and a 10-block walk.
He started at 8 in the morning but preferred to leave well in advance.
[Martín Cano]: I arrived earlier than usual, a little after 7:10. . .
[Daniel]: As soon as he arrived, he went to change in the basement, where the changing rooms were. The kitchen had also been moved there, because renovations had been going on for some time, on the first floor, as well as the entire heating system.
Martín made himself some coffee, prepared the breakfast cart and went out with his partner Buby to do their round of the building. By half past nine, they were back in the basement, talking with Cacho, another maintenance worker, about the soccer games of the previous day.
Martín arranged the dirty dishes, which he needed to wash for lunch.
[Martín]: I leave the cart to one side. I take out the dishes and begin to put everything in the sink. Several minutes have gone by. I set down the glasses and when I set down the glasses, I notice that all the lights go out.
[Daniel]: It was exactly 9:53.
[Martín]: A tremendous explosion that throws me backwards.
[Daniel]: When he opened his eyes, he couldn’t see anything. Everything was dark.
A brief pause and we will be back.
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[Daniel]: We are back on Radio Ambulante. Our producer Aneris Casassus continues the story.
[Aneris Casassus]: Let’s go back to Horacio Paz, the firefighter who was working at the plastics factory that morning. When he heard on the radio that there was talk of a building collapse in the Once neighborhood, the first thing he did was glance at the time on his father’s watch. Then he ran to the phone to call the fire station and tell them he was on his way. He was about 15 blocks away.
He arrived quickly. Cell phones were hardly being used at the time, but he managed to quickly locate the ten NCOs under his charge.
[Horacio]: We had a fairly effective and fast calling chain. So I immediately—I didn’t even have to call some of them, because many of them called me first, and so we told them to get over here, get over here, and well . . .
[Aneris]: Everyone knew that something very serious had occurred at the AMIA building. Dozens of neighbors were reporting a tremendous blast. Others spoke of a collapse. Immediately, public hospitals began organizing to send their ambulances and doctors over.
Around noon, the firefighters from Horacio’s group were at the fire station and ready to leave. The truck had already left for AMIA with another crew of firefighters, so Horacio and the others had to get on a minibus to try to reach the place. But the traffic was blocked off. You could get only as far as Corrientes Avenue, about two and a half blocks from the AMIA building, and from there you had to walk.
It wasn’t until he got off the minibus that Horacio realized the magnitude of the disaster. Even at that distance, the streets were littered with debris and glass, and people were screaming and running this way and that.
(ARCHIVE SOUND BITE)
[Aneris]: Horacio walked the two and a half blocks, hardly believing his eyes, and when he got to the AMIA, there was no building left. Just a huge mountain of rubble. The press was already reporting from the scene.
(ARCHIVE SOUND BITE)
[Journalist]: We’re at Tucumán and Pasteur, behind an ambulance that is just now arriving to help more injured people in the Once neighborhood. AMIA is completely destroyed.
[Aneris]: Horacio got as close as he could, and saw dozens of people walking on the mountain of rubble, desperate . . .
(ARCHIVE SOUND BITE)
[Family member]: I was working and I was—my daughter is down there, she went down to get some coffee.
[Journalist]: How many people worked in this place, ma’am?
[Family member]: A lot, at the moment I don’t know, a lot. I don’t know . . . I want my daughter!
[Aneris]: Horacio realized that working in the area would be very difficult.
[Horacio]: A place contaminated by a lot of people who had the intention and the will to help. But instead of helping, they weren’t any help at all.
[Aneris]: Relatives of AMIA workers and residents of the neighborhood took the rubble with their hands and loaded it in small buckets. 10-liter buckets for 2 thousand square meters of shattered building. They were so desperate to rescue the victims, they refused to leave. And that, of course, was dangerous: What remained of the building could collapse at any moment.
While some firefighters tried to remove neighbors and relatives, others assisted people who had been injured as they were passing by the building. Horacio and his group were carefully analyzing the scene. Somewhere in the chaos, they needed to find a hole where they could enter the mountain of rubble. A gap, a space to build a tunnel—if there were survivors down there, it was their job to reach them.
It was a dangerous task, but they had to try. After all, that’s what the Special Rescue Group was for. They were alert to the movements of the dogs they had brought with them.
[Horacio]: If any of the rescue dogs marks a spot, that’s where he’s telling you there could be people. People under three, four meters of rubble. How do you get them out?
[Aneris]: In addition to the dogs, they were helped by cameras that they put through metal tubes. Those were their eyes down there where they couldn’t go.
[Horacio]: Well, that took a while, an hour, an hour or so until some of my colleagues were able to—I mean, to clean up and find the elevator shaft.
[Aneris]: In a disaster, this was good news: they could find their way through there to get inside the mountain of rubble and reach the basement. The only way to know what was down there was to take a risk and go down.
A few meters from Horacio and the firefighters, Dr. Carlos Russo was already working at the site. As soon as he heard the alerts on the emergency line, he left the hospital in an ambulance headed straight for the AMIA. Seven blocks before he arrived, he began to see debris all over the streets.
[Carlos]: Everything was confusion, the feeling of death, of people screaming, crying, running. The smell of the place. This situation is so overwhelming that instead of causing you to react, it causes paralysis. You are somehow rendered paralyzed, and you say, what am I doing here? Where do I start? How do I handle this?
[Aneris]: In the mountain of rubble was an elevator box, and someone was struggling to get out. Everything all around was dust and chaos. Carlos watched as people searched for their relatives, while, toward the front, some people were taking advantage of the panic to loot.
[Carlos]: There were businesses, I don’t remember if they were shoe stores, jewelry stores, they sold clothing, and people were stealing everything inside.
[Aneris]: Carlos stared at them in shock. But it was only for a moment. He had no time to lose; hundreds of injured people needed his attention.
Meanwhile, Horacio and his colleagues from the Special Rescue Group were devising a plan to go down the elevator shaft. They knew the elevator ran through the middle of the building. They could descend with an extendable ladder, but it was not that easy. First, they would have to gradually clear the hole that had been covered by the explosion. They went down about 8 meters, removing rubble piece by piece, until they reached the basement and found a hallway. Or what had been a hallway until very recently.
[Horacio]: Because just picture it, the building had collapsed. We didn’t just walk in. You had to crawl while clearing the way.
[Aneris]: Pieces of masonry, bricks, iron and sheets thrown everywhere. They were opening a tunnel no more than 70 centimeters high, propping it up with studs and wood to prevent everything from collapsing.
[Horacio]: It’s a work of archaeology to find what was once structurally standing up.
[Aneris]: They removed rubble and rested from time to time, sitting in that tunnel. Moving one meter could take an hour or two. But if they went any faster, they could end up buried. As they worked, they kept calling out. They wanted to know if there were any survivors, but they didn’t hear anything.
A few hours earlier, when Martín Cano, the employee who was delivering coffee that morning at AMIA, opened his eyes, everything was dark. The explosion had thrown him against a wall. He couldn’t move. His body was trapped in debris from the chest down. His hands were free, but his left hand was unresponsive. He tried to move the rocks off his body with his right hand, but it was impossible. Then he started yelling out and immediately heard the yelling of his teammates, Cacho and Buby, with whom he had been talking about soccer while arranging the dishes, just before everything went black.
He couldn’t see them, but they could talk. They were also trapped underground in the AMIA. Martín’s head had been just under the counter where he had been setting down the dishes minutes before. That had prevented his skull from being caught under the rubble, too.
[Martín]: My friend Cacho kept telling me, “Don’t touch anything, don’t touch anything.” Just in case something might fall on my head.
[Aneris]: They were very confused; none of them understood what had just happened. They screamed for help, but no one responded. The silence and darkness were so dense that Martín felt he was in a cave.
For an instant, in the midst of the confusion, Martín thought he was responsible for the explosion that had blown up the entire building.
[Martín]: And the truth is, I thought I had touched a gas tap. I don’t know. I was just a kid—I thought, maybe I touched something . . . “No, you didn’t touch anything,” my partner told me.
[Aneris]: His partner Cacho never ceased talking to him and encouraging him . . .
[Martín]: “Martín, don’t fall asleep, Martín, don’t fall asleep,” he would say. “We are going to get out, stay calm, the firefighters are going to come down, they have to come and rescue us.”
[Aneris]: He told him that he had to hang on, above all, for Daniel, his three-month-old baby. Martín was thinking how he had kissed his son and Lorena, his wife, that morning before leaving for work. They were both asleep. It had been just a few hours, but everything seemed so far away.
He also thought of Antonia, his mother, who had died 10 years earlier.
[Martín]: I thought a lot and prayed to her, saying that I wanted to save myself. I wanted to get out of there to . . . to see my son grow up.
[Aneris]: It was difficult to calculate the time down there. Minutes seemed like hours. Hours seemed like days. The cold was getting more and more intense. The only thing that kept them calm was to keep talking to each other, but soon they stopped hearing Buby.
[Martín]: We said, “Buby, Buby”—and that was it. He stopped answering after two or three hours, I think, you know? Because it was all dark, you couldn’t see anything.
[Aneris]: Martín imagined the worst. But Cacho tried to calm him down.
[Martín]: “He must have fallen asleep,” he said. What can he say? What could he say if he didn’t see him either?
[Aneris]: Martín was convinced that what Cacho said was true, that Buby had fallen asleep and would respond at any moment.
He himself was feeling more and more exhausted . . .
[Martín]: Every hour that passed, the pains became worse. I cried and cried; at times we yelled out. And at times I kind of fell asleep briefly, because you get short of breath after shouting so much.
[Aneris]: Each time he woke up, Martín felt that it was getting colder. His whole body ached and he had peed all over himself. He had a stone stuck in his back and couldn’t do anything to get it out. At times, he believed that he would never be able to get out of there. And then he would hear Cacho’s voice again, encouraging him, talking to him about his baby or trying to resume the conversation about the previous day’s games. They had completely lost track of time, but Martín calculated that they might have already spent eight hours under the rubble.
Buby hadn’t spoken again. Trapped and immobile, they only had each other. Until, suddenly, they began to hear something . . .
Some banging, first, or something that sounded like a blow. And then another blow. And a few moments later, in the distance, voices . . .
[Martín]: Then someone said, “Is anyone there? Are there any survivors?” And we started yelling like crazy, both of us like crazy. I think I did more than him. I got strength; I don’t know where it came from.
[Aneris]: They didn’t stop shouting, a mix of despair and euphoria. And the voices were shouting back at them. They wanted to know their names.
[Martín]: “Yes, who is it . . . your names?” “Martín and Cacho.” And when he said, “Well, we’ll be with you soon, we’re going to get you out,” my soul returned to my body; my soul returned to my body. Then the image of my baby came up again. I said, I’m going to see him again.
[Aneris]: On the other side of the darkness, firefighter Horacio Paz and his partners were also elated: they had found survivors. But they couldn’t see them. The tunnel was coming along very slowly, and there was nothing but debris in front of them. They had to keep digging to get to them as soon as possible, but they couldn’t make any decisions lightly. Any wrong move could cause a new collapse, putting not only the survivors at risk, but also themselves.
They analyzed whether the rescue was really viable. To some, it seemed impossible, but the commanding officer decided that they should try. So they radioed their companions on the surface to bring them more tools.
The first one they managed to see was Buby. He was trapped between the remains of an industrial kitchen and hundreds of pieces of masonry rubble.
Horacio remembers that moment perfectly.
[Horacio]: It was evident that the blow had hurt him badly, so he didn’t speak, but I remember, I remember his face, his hair, his mustache, the painful look of that poor man. And I remember his outfit, his shirt, the bowtie.
[Aneris]: The white shirt, the black bowtie at his neck. His waiter’s uniform. It took Horacio and the other firefighters almost two hours to free Buby from the rubble. He was alive but badly injured. A stretcher was lowered down the elevator shaft. Other firefighters, who were upstairs, threw ropes to tie it. And they started pulling. And that was how, almost unconscious, Buby went up the elevator shaft and left the AMIA for the last time.
Once they managed to get Buby out, Horacio and the other firefighters returned immediately to the tunnel. Now they had to get to Martín and Cacho. They couldn’t see them, but, from their shouts, they deduced that the one who was closest was Martín. They had to keep pushing their way carefully to get to him. But his shouts were getting more and more desperate . . .
Water. Martín yelled out that he was being covered by water.
[Martín]: I couldn’t believe it. I thought, I’ve held out for so many hours and the firefighters are just half a meter from . . . from me, and the water starts leaking in a tremendous way. It . . . begins to cover me because it covered quite a bit in seconds. In seconds, the water covered me.
[Aneris]: Unable to move, he felt the water rising rapidly over his body—the pipes that supplied the building’s tank had burst from the collapse or the work of the firefighters, and the water was seeping through the rubble.
Martín screamed in despair. It was almost up to his neck.
[Martín]: That’s when I thought I would die. That’s when I thought I was dying.
[Aneris]: The only thing he could do was to keep on screaming.
While all this was happening underground, Fernando Souto—the firefighter who was on a minibus on the highway when he heard the explosion—had been trying for hours to help with rescue tasks on the surface.
[Fernando]: And when we arrived, the situation was worse than it looked. It was much worse.
[Aneris]: Worse than what was seen on television. Together with the junior firefighters who came in the minibus, they removed what debris they could and looked for victims. But at one point, he lost sight of his superior and his companions. So he started walking around the area, trying to find them.
[Fernando]: I climbed the mountain of rubble. You got to the middle and suddenly that mountain began to go down. I start to go down and suddenly I find that I’m already inside the AMIA, in what would have been the theater.
[Aneris]: What was left of the theater on the ground floor of the building. He had found a different entrance to the elevator shaft through which, hours before, Horacio and the other firefighters had descended.
Once inside, what he saw left him speechless.
[Fernando]: All the seats stacked like a mushroom against the wall and against the theater—you could see the shock wave perfectly.
[Aneris]: The wave of an explosion that must have been extremely powerful. He watched for a second, and began looking for survivors. Until he noticed that there were firefighters working behind the theater, backstage.
[Fernando]: Then I go there. I go up to the stage of the theater and behind was a . . . a staircase that went down. And it was like a basement but long, with water at least a meter high.
[Aneris]: One of his colleagues from the Special Rescue Group, named Javier Revilla, was trying to connect a machine with a motor and a hose.
[Fernando]: Very nervous, very agitated. The work he was doing . . . was not consistent with the look on his face . . . his look of haste.
[Aneris]: You couldn’t see Martín or Cacho buried under the rubble, or the firefighters from Horacio’s group who were in the tunnel. They were all separated by rubble. But from there, with the hose, Javier hoped to pump out the water that was almost at the level of Martín’s neck.
Fernando walked further down a destroyed hallway.
[Fernando]: At some point, I came to a wall and that wall was broken, the wall . . . Between the wall and the ceiling there was a hole. I looked, climbed on some furniture, some furniture that was there, and on the other side there were several firefighters talking to a wall . . .
[Aneris]: Horacio’s group.
[Fernando]: They spoked desperately to a wall of rubble and a water tank, but in complete distress. And then I heard that on the other side of the wall there were . . . there were victims and they were drowning. Of course, the water on this side was also on their side.
[Aneris]: From the tunnel, Horacio pleaded with Javier, the firefighter who was installing the machine, to plug it in at once. But the place where Javier was had at least a meter of water.
Horacio shouted, insisting . . .
[Horacio]: We weren’t seeing that. We only heard Martín praying that the water wouldn’t reach his neck, and we couldn’t see Javier, and we yelled to him from our tunnel, “Plug it in.” And he said, “Hang on.” And Martín yelled, and we said, “Plug it in,” and he replied, “Hang on.” And we were each in our isolated compartment, not knowing what the other was doing. Martín had to be thinking, “Why don’t these firefighters get the water out?” We were thinking, “Why doesn’t Javier draw out the water?” And Javier was thinking, “These guys don’t know that I have water up to my waist and I have to plug in an extension cord.”
[Aneris]: Horacio kept yelling to plug in the machine . . .
[Horacio]: At that moment it turned into, “Come on, big guy, come on, plug it in, plug it in, plug it in!” and the big guy said, “Yeah, right, I’ll plug in your bitch of a mother!”
[Aneris]: And when he said that, he plugged it in.
[Horacio]: And he said, “of a moooother!” That’s how it went.
[Aneris]: Javier got a powerful electric shock that almost killed him. His partners helped him immediately and took him out to an ambulance that carried him to the hospital. But the machine worked and the water level started to go down. Around the same time, Aguas Argentinas cut off all supply to the area, and the broken pipes from the AMIA stopped leaking. For Fernando, it was a miracle that these two things happened at the same time.
[Fernando]: I think five more minutes and they would have died.
[Aneris]: With the water almost touching his nose, Martín noticed that it suddenly began to recede. And, again, his soul returned to his body.
[Martín]: And truly, I said, “This is not my day to go, I’m not going to go,” I said.
[Aneris]: Once they had dealt with the threat of water, Fernando joined Horacio’s group in the task of opening the tunnel to get to where Martín and Cacho were. They estimated they were within three or four meters of each other. They had to analyze every decision very carefully. If they tried to free them at the same time, they could unbalance a huge water tank that was propping everything up. And that wasn’t the only danger. In order to get to Martín, they had to break a wall without touching any beams of what was left of the basement structure.
They studied the situation for about five or ten minutes.
[Fernando]: If we broke the wall, we didn’t know if all the debris would fall our way. So, we decided to enter from below. Start to—try to reach Martín from below.
[Aneris]: They dug a tiny tunnel under the wall. Fernando, who was the thinnest, put his arm through and managed to stick it out the other side.
[Fernando]: I put my hand in and touched him. I touched Martín. I remember he grabbed my hand and wouldn’t let go of it for anything.
[Aneris]: Around 8 o’clock that night, after 10 hours under the rubble, Martín had felt the physical contact of a person again. The person who might get him out of there. He was soaked, freezing to death. He couldn’t take it anymore. But Fernando wouldn’t stop talking to him. He asked him about his family, he talked to him about soccer, he wanted to keep him active so that he wouldn’t fall asleep.
Martín used what little strength he had left to answer.
[Martín]: He kept on . . . talking to me about the baby, everything, everything that was coming. That you’re going to play ball with . . . with Dani, do it for my son, and all that was what made me at times even forget about—about the pain.
[Aneris]: They were almost the same age, but at that moment, buried under the rubble, Martín saw Fernando as a father figure.
[Martín]: I felt that he loved me like a son. I don’t know. And every so often he shook my hand. Stay calm. We are getting you out now.
[Aneris]: Little by little, the other firefighters had widened the tunnel so that Martín could pass through. But it would not be so simple: Martín had his legs trapped between the bars that supported the counter. First, these had to be carefully removed so that they could release him.
They were doing that when they realized the air in the tunnel was beginning to change. They were breathing dust. More and more dust.
Upstairs, people ran in terror.
(ARCHIVE SOUND BITE)
[Journalist]: Attention! Careful, careful! Watch out, watch out, watch out! Terrible, my God. Terrible. What has happened, terrible. There has been a new collapse . . . they weren’t able to . . . My God. Oh, my God . . .
[Rescuer]: Stay back, stay back, dude, stay back!
[Journalist]: Keep calm . . .
[Rescuer]: Keep calm . . .
[Journalist]: Authorities are asking people to remain calm . . .
[Journalist]: They ask for silence so they can detect . . .
[Aneris]: Below, Horacio, Fernando and the others were still motionless.
[Fernando]: And suddenly a . . . a boss, a deputy commissioner shows up down there and shouts, “Everyone out, there is a collapse, everyone out, everyone get out, everyone get out, everyone get out.”
[Aneris]: Part of what was left of the building had collapsed. And they had no choice but to obey their boss’s order: They had to leave or they could all die.
But Martín and Cacho were still trapped.
[Aneris]: We shut down all the equipment. The hammers, the . . . the . . . the hydraulic tools, the generator sets. And we had only the flashlights. You can say there was no light left in the basement. And then Martín began shouting, “Kill me! Don’t leave me!”
[Aneris]: Through the hole where he was holding his hand, Fernando handed Martín a flashlight. In the dark, as they exited the tunnel, the firefighters could see the dim light of that flashlight.
[Fernando]: And as we ran out, the truth was that we felt like cowards.
[Aneris]: It was at that moment that Horacio decided to go back to where Martín was. He took off the ’74 Citizen Quartz watch that he had inherited from his father, the one he had always dreamed of having as a child, and passed it through the hole . . .
[Horacio]: And I said, “My dad gave me this watch.” I said, “I’m coming back for the watch, fool, not for you.” I called him “fool,” I remember.
[Daniel]: Martín grabbed the watch, which had become a promise. The firefighters turned around and left.
A brief pause and we will be back.
[Daniel]: We are back on Radio Ambulante. I’m Daniel Alarcón.
Before the break, we heard how Horacio and Fernando, firefighters from the Buenos Aires Special Rescue Group, had to abandon Martín and Cacho under the rubble of the AMIA building. But they promised they would return and, as a symbol of that promise, they left Martín a watch that had belonged to Horacio’s father. Trapped, unable to move, and freezing, Martín and Cacho had no choice but to trust that they would keep their word.
Aneris Casassus picks up the story.
[Aneris]: While Fernando, Horacio, and the group of firefighters exited the tunnel as quickly as possible, Dr. Carlos Russo continued to assist the injured on the surface. In all, there were more than 300, and the death toll kept increasing. As he worked, he was still in shock. Everything he saw around him reminded him of what had happened only two years earlier at the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires.
[Carlos]: These scenes, both in the Embassy and the AMIA, were worse than . . . than anything you could see. And you see a whole building collapsed, people screaming, everything is chaos. It’s very difficult to take it in, you know?
[Aneris]: Two years earlier, on March 17, 1992, the embassy had exploded.
(ARCHIVE SOUND BITE)
[Journalist]: We see mobile fire brigades, branches, fallen trees. It is obviously a huge explosion. You can just picture it, as if a bomb had fallen from an airplane.
[Aneris]: The bomb, it was later learned, had not fallen from any plane. A Ford F-100 truck driven by a suicide bomber and loaded with explosives ran into the embassy building in the Retiro neighborhood. The blast also hit a nursing home, a Catholic church, and a school. It left at least 22 dead and 242 injured.
Those images were still fresh in Dr. Carlos Russo’s mind, because he had also helped victims that time. The media had already begun to link the two events. It was inevitable. Two explosions, only two years apart, and in both cases the target was the Jewish community. The survivors also made the connection immediately, and they said as much to the television crews that were at the AMIA that day.
(ARCHIVE SOUND BITE)
[Survivor]: Incredible. I cannot understand what they have against us . . . I had already experienced an explosion in the Israeli Embassy, but I never imagined that I would be saved a second time. This is so unfair. People have to understand that we are like everyone else, with our precepts and our circumstances.
[Aneris]: That same day, the prosecutor in charge of the investigation began to speak of a “terrorist attack.”
(ARCHIVE SOUND BITE)
[Journalist]: Prosecutor Germán Moldes estimated today that the terrorist attack may have been caused by the explosion of a car bomb . . .
[Aneris]: That’s why Fernando had seen the chairs of the AMIA Theater against the wall, as if an invisible force had thrown them. But now, neither he nor Horacio had time to keep an eye on the news. They had just come out of the tunnel and wanted to go back to look for Martín and Cacho. After the second collapse, their boss did not want them to return; he was afraid they wouldn’t be able to get out again. But they insisted. While Horacio tried to convince him, two or three firefighters went down the elevator shaft to buy time. Finally, Horacio got approval for everyone to continue with the operation in the tunnel. They would secure the way so that they could leave quickly in case of a new collapse.
It took them about 20 minutes to get back, which for Martín was an eternity. During that time, he repeated over and over again, like a mantra, the last words that Fernando and Horacio had said to him when they left the tunnel:
[Martín Cano]: We are coming back. No, we are not leaving you here. We are going to rescue you.
[Aneris]: He thought of his baby; he had to hang on for his sake. Clinging to a watch and a flashlight, buried under tons of rubble, he believed those firefighters would keep their promise. It was all he had left: trust in two men whose faces he had never even seen. They were just voices in the dark.
Horacio has a very clear memory of the moment they returned. He approached the hole in the wall where he had handed him the watch.
[Horacio]: And I told him, “See, you fool? I said I was going to return, and here we are. Rest assured that you are going to walk out of here,” he told him.
[Aneris]: They recommenced digging to get to him. They were getting closer. Already, they could see his knee and crotch through the hole. Martín seemed calmer. The one who was beginning to decline now was his companion, Cacho, the same one who had encouraged him for hours. His voice was weaker now. He was diabetic and by that time his glucose levels were probably not at all good.
The firefighters worked by sectors. Some propped up the main tunnel, others made their way to get to Martín under the wall, and a third group dug another tunnel to try to get to where Cacho was. They had to work with millimetric precision; the space to maneuver with their tools was minimal, and they had to cut the steel from the countertop that kept Martín’s legs trapped.
Martín hadn’t been able to feel his feet for a long time.
[Martín]: I didn’t want to look at anything. I was scared to look. I asked them: Do I still have my feet? Because I didn’t want to look at my feet. And they looked like two soccer balls; everything was swollen. You have no idea what they looked like.
[Aneris]: In the despair of those hours, Martín even asked Horacio to please cut them off. Horacio grabbed the knife that he always carried in his uniform.
[Horacio]: And I felt his ankle and put the tip of my knife to him and poked him a little. To see if it was true that he couldn’t feel anything. And then he said, “Stop that, you animal, what are you doing?” and so on. “Oh, so you do feel the leg, then. No, don’t break it, since you can feel it.”
[Aneris]: Martin laughed at the answer, and that calmed him down a bit. He still had reflexes on his pinned legs. The firefighters continued to widen the hole with jackhammers and hydraulic expanders with shears, huge scissors to cut iron and sheet metal.
[Horacio]: Because the space was so small, we worked lying down, and then through one of those cracks in the wall, we hit him on the ankle with the tip.
[Aneris]: They accidentally broke his ankle, but that would allow them to maneuver it better. Once the hole was big enough, one of the firefighters got in and managed to unlock Martín’s legs. They then dragged him to the main tunnel and tied him to a stretcher.
He would not walk out as Horacio had promised, but it was certain that he would get out. He needed only to do something very difficult: say goodbye to Cacho, his friend, the supporting voice that had helped him all that time.
[Martín]: And the last thing I said, “Ciao, Cachito.” I remember that I just said that.
[Aneris]: Even though he was weak, Cacho did not lose his optimism.
[Martín]: “You see, Martincito, they’re going to get you out and then they’re going to get me out.”
[Aneris]: Fernando gets emotional when he remembers that scene.
[Fernando]: A feeling of . . . incredible separation when . . . when Martín said goodbye to . . . to Cacho. He encouraged him, saying, “See you, see you at the hospital, old man. You’ll be fine. You’re getting out. They’re going to get you out . . .”
[Aneris]: Tied to the stretcher, the firefighters raised Martín up the elevator shaft. As soon as he came out, he felt the fresh air and the thick fog of the night.
[Martín]: What I see, the first image, is a mountain of rubble with the elevator door.
[Aneris]: A mountain that had kept him buried for over 12 hours.
[Martín]: And after a while, I started falling asleep. I don’t know, you can picture it—with the oxygen I was falling asleep because of the pain I felt.
[Aneris]: While the doctors administered oxygen and first aid, Martín heard the applause of all the rescuers working at the site. He managed to say his name and ask that his family be notified immediately that he was alive. No one remembers very well how it happened, but when Martín left for the Clínicas Hospital, Horacio already had his father’s Citizen Quartz watch back on his left wrist.
[Aneris]: At that time, after 10 at night, the media were already talking about a firm lead on which the Israeli intelligence service was working. The next day, President Carlos Menem would announce that the main suspect was Hezbollah, a Lebanese Muslim-Shi’i terrorist organization, trained by Iran in Lebanon in response to Israel’s invasion of that country in 1982.
(ARCHIVE SOUND BITE)
[Carlos Menem]: I am being told from the Mossad, from Israel, that a terrorist group that has its headquarters in southern Lebanon, in Sidon, claimed the attack . . .
[Aneris]: It was the largest attack on the Jewish community since the Second World War. It was not clear what Hezbollah had to do with Argentina, a country with the largest Jewish community in Latin America, but located 13,000 kilometers away from Lebanon. Suspicions, over time, would point to the fact that Carlos Menem’s government had suspended a technology agreement with Iran.
In a matter of hours, the news of the attack was spreading around the world. All intelligence services were alert. Beneath the mountain of rubble, everything remained the same. It was now early Tuesday morning, and the group of Horacio and Fernando was digging tirelessly to get to Cacho. In the surface, the media channels continued to broadcast what was happening
(ARCHIVE SOUND BITE)
[Journalist]: Almost 2 in the morning. Dozens of people working on a task in which every second can mean the life of a person who is still under the slab.
[Aneris]: The explosion had trapped Cacho just behind a huge concrete tank, a water tank that held up what was left of the basement. And the firefighters had once again a difficult decision to make. One option was to crawl through the 12-inch gap, the size of a standard school ruler, between the legs of the tank and the floor. But if that didn’t work out, the result would be tragic.
[Horacio]: You had to crawl inside and if that fell, it would fall on top of the worker.
[Aneris]: Another option was to go through the tank.
[Horacio]: We discussed it and decided to break the wall, which was a side wall of the tank. We entered the tank and broke the other wall that faced the side where Cacho was.
[Aneris]: Horacio was the best suited for that job.
[Horacio]: You had to be a certain size to work there. You had to be small. And then, when they cast lots, I got it along with someone else because I’m 1.65 meters tall.
[Aneris]: For this reason, his friends at the station called him “the dwarf.” Breaking the walls of the tank, working with very little space, was a strenuous effort. He had to do it for periods of 15 minutes at the most.
[Horacio]: I lay down in that tunnel, in the main tunnel, and slept. I slept twenty or twenty-five minutes. In other words, I slept soundly. I slept until they woke me up and said, “Go,” then I went back to work again.
[Aneris]: They had been down there almost 20 hours, and they barely had the strength to stand. Fernando remembers that Cacho was getting worse and worse.
[Fernando]: You could tell he was very tired, very worn down. We joked with him to . . . to try to keep him awake.
[Aneris]: They told him that when they got out, they would all go have a beer together. They talked to him about Atlanta, his soccer team, and his family.
After several hours of work inside the cistern, Horacio was close to breaking the second wall. He had to calculate the final movements very carefully. He had already broken Martín’s ankle and didn’t want to hurt Cacho, who had his back leaning against the wall he wanted to open.
[Horacio]: My calculations were pretty good, and the first thing I saw when I finished—that tunnel and breaking the tank—the first thing I saw when I looked down that little hole was Cacho’s skin about 20 centimeters away. I mean, I came out precisely on top of him.
[Aneris]: Horacio reached into the hole and touched his bald head.
[Horacio]: And then I touched the bald head and as a joke, I asked him, “What are you up to baldy, Cacho?” And since he had heard for hours that everyone called me dwarf, dwarf this and dwarf that, he replied, “Hello, dwarf” . . . and he extended his hand a little, like this, and I touched his hand.
[Aneris]: After so many hours chatting through a wall, it felt as if I were shaking hands with a friend. They were closer to getting him out, but at that point Cacho was very weak.
After spending Tuesday morning helping wounded people on the surface, Dr. Carlos Russo heard that a doctor was needed underground.
[Carlos]: I went down with another doctor who was a colleague of mine, as volunteers to assist him.
[Aneris]: Guided by the firefighters, Carlos went down the elevator shaft with his colleague, advanced through the tunnel, and crossed the tank to where Cacho was. They gave him a saline solution and measured his blood sugar levels. They feared that, after so many hours soaked under the rubble, he was going into hypothermia.
[Carlos]: Maintain his general condition as best as possible while the firefighters continued working to get him from where he was stuck.
[Aneris]: It was shoulder to shoulder work with Horacio and the other firefighters.
[Horacio]: He monitored everything, monitored his pressure and temperature and—I mean, when Cacho was not doing well, he also assisted him.
[Aneris]: What worried Carlos the most were Cacho’s legs. He had both thighs trapped and badly injured by the debris. If his legs were not properly tied before releasing him, the infection could spread to the rest of the body, putting his life in danger.
There was another alternative, but it seemed unfeasible.
[Carlos]: Imagine what it is like to do an amputation in that place. It’s a . . . a disaster within a disaster. Very difficult.
[Aneris]: Several more hours passed, while the firefighters continued opening the hole to remove Cacho, and the doctors monitored his condition. In the middle of all that, Carlos had to assist Horacio after a hydraulic hose burst and liquid got into his ears.
They were exhausted, but would not leave. Every so often, they spoke by walkie talkie with the heads of the operation who were on the surface.
[Carlos]: Often they said to us, “We can send a replacement team. Do you want to be replaced?” To replace both firefighters and us doctors. No one wanted to; the hours had been long, there was a lot of tension, but we were fine and the team was working well. Changing everything, ah . . . would not have been ideal. Nobody wanted to leave that place without finishing the job.
[Aneris]: Of one thing they were sure: they would all come out of there together.
At around 10 p.m. on Tuesday, 36 hours after the explosion, firefighters finally managed to free Cacho. Carlos immediately secured the compression bandage on his legs to prevent the infection from advancing. Horacio remembers very well what he told him as they prepared him on the stretcher—the last words he would say to him.
[Horacio]: I carried him and said, “See, you fool, that we . . . we were going to get you out? Give me your home address because we’re going to have a beer.” And well, while we finished all those tasks, getting him ready, immobilizing him on the stretcher to transport him through the tunnel and hoist him through the elevator, I said to him, “And now we’re taking you out ourselves,” I said, “because we are coming out with you.”
[Aneris]: They had nothing else to do down there.
[Horacio]: Cacho was the last one we had there. And, although he didn’t know it, he was also the last one in AMIA.
[Aneris]: They carried him up the tunnel and the rest of the group below followed. Television crews recorded the departure of the last survivor, who had been a day and a half under the rubble.
[Horacio]: I remember I told him, “Say hello: today is your birthday,” I said, “You’re famous.” And he said to me, “What do you mean birthday,” he said, “My birthday”—I don’t know, say his birthday was in October—, he said, “My birthday is in October” and then I replied, “Say hello, dude, today you were born again, say hello.”
[Aneris]: Cacho was tied to the stretcher but managed to move one of his forearms a little to wave. And again, the applause of all the rescuers who were there. The firefighters carried him to the ambulance that would take him to the Clínicas Hospital.
Fernando, the youngest firefighter, couldn’t believe what they had accomplished.
[Fernando]: The first rescue was encouraging. The second was something incredible. And the third was a miracle.
[Aneris]: Carlos, the doctor, remembers that a woman approached him.
[Carlos]: A lady came up to say, “Thank you very much, thank you very much for everything you are doing.” I never knew who she was. That thank you sounded—it sounds so good, so, so comforting, and, well, we did what we had to do.
[Aneris]: Once Cacho left for the hospital, the firefighters and the doctor hugged. According to Horacio, they looked for a moment like the players on a rugby team. A team that had returned from below the earth.
[Horacio]: We cried a lot, right there, by the AMIA. We put aside our miseries, our daily struggles, our differences of opinions. I remember right there, while we were all hugging, I remember saying, “Okay, let’s go home.” And we went back to the station, to our home.
[Aneris]: When Martín woke up, he was under the white fluorescent lights of an intensive care unit, and he had no idea how long it had been since he was rescued from the rubble. His family had searched for him desperately in different hospitals in Buenos Aires, and listened to the lists of wounded and dead that were announced on television channels. It was twelve hours of agony for his father and for Lorena, his wife, until they saw his name on the television screen. He was one of the survivors who had been transferred to the Clínicas Hospital, two blocks away from the AMIA.
The first to see him was his father. And as soon as he entered, Martín asked him how his two companions, Cacho and Buby, were doing. They had survived down there together, but no one said anything about them.
[Martín]: The first thing I asked was about Cacho. Because I was always with Cacho and that day I had been with Cacho all day too. But they wouldn’t tell me anything.
[Aneris]: They did not want to tell him one of the saddest news of his life: that neither Cacho nor Buby had been able to overcome the injuries they suffered in the collapse. They had both made it to the hospital alive, but died after a few hours. They were 56 and 62 years old.
[Martín]: Until the time came when they had to tell me that the worst had happened . . .
[Aneris]: Cacho’s name was Jacobo Chemauel; Buby’s was Naón Bernardo Mirochnik. Cacho loved soccer; Buby sang tangos. In this recording, the singing voice you are going to hear is his.
(SOUND BITE OF BUBY’S TANGO)
[Aneris]: They were much loved among AMIA employees, and they were two of the 85 fatalities left by the most ferocious terrorist attack in Argentinean history.
Martín was devastated. They had survived together for hours, they had helped him keep going, and now only he was left. The only thing that could console him was to see Lorena and their three-month-old son again.
With both legs broken, he could barely hold him in his arms. But he did, just as Cacho had told him he would when everything was dark.
Thirteen days later, Martín would return home in a wheelchair, unable to walk and with a long rehab ahead of him. He had a hard time living with noises: he got scared if his wife dropped a pot lid on the floor while she was cooking. And he couldn’t sleep at night; he was tormented by the darkness and a constant ringing in his ears.
[Martín]: There was that buzz for a couple of months. It was due to the bomb. I remember, after 27 years, that sound is still the same.
[Aneris]: After a year and a half of rehab, Martín returned to work at the AMIA, in a temporary building, while they rebuilt the headquarters at 633 Pasteur Street. It took him years to get used to the absences.
[Martín]: I used to chat with those people when I passed by each floor to distribute coffee, and I already knew them. They had a lot of projects and could never get them done because of everything that happened. Many of them were badly injured. Many people left too, out of fear.
[Aneris]: Martín continued working there for 25 more years, going every day to the same place where on July 18, 1994, at 9.53 a.m., a bomb left him on the brink of death. He had four more children, and in 2017 he had to face another of the most difficult moments of his life: the death of his wife Lorena. Two years later, he retired to spend more time with his family. He still lives in Merlo, where he works as a taxi driver and has a small bookstore.
After his experience in the AMIA attack, Dr. Carlos Russo decided to specialize in medical care for emergencies and catastrophes.
[Carlos]: It was such an extreme situation that it made me think, “I have to keep doing this and I have to keep getting better at it,” which is what I did from then on, for the rest of my life.
[Aneris]: He has been part of the operations during the country’s greatest tragedies and in international missions, to the Gaza Strip and Haiti, among others.
Fernando, the youngest firefighter, is currently Chief of the Urban Protection Command and is in charge of all the fire stations in the city of Buenos Aires. He has also participated in major rescue operations across the country.
He met Martín one more time, 24 years after the attack, at the door of the AMIA, for a television report.
[Fernando]: And when he hears me, he says, “I know your voice.” Forgive me if I break down a little . . .
[Aneris]: They hugged, and Martín told him that, during all those years, he had never been able to forget that voice.
Horacio also continued working for many more years as a firefighter. He retired in 2016 and now lives in El Alcázar, a town in the province of Misiones. I asked him if he still had the ’74 Citizen Quartz watch that he left for Martin that night under the rubble. And he said he didn’t.
[Horacio] Paz: I lost it in a dumb way. It was a moment, a kind of dark moment—that’s the word—in my life. With little, with very little light.
[Aneris]: He told me that about ten years after the attack—he can’t remember if in 2004 or 2005—he had money problems and left the watch as partial payment of a debt. He told the moneylender that he would return with the money the next day to retrieve the watch that had belonged to his father. But when he returned to the place the following day, he didn’t find anyone there.
[Horacio]: So, at that moment my first thought was, I lost my watch. I was thinking selfishly, I said, “I lost my watch.” And then I said, just like that, in the next few days when I had calmed down my madness a bit, I said, “No, this watch was not mine.”
[Aneris]: In a way, it no longer belonged to anyone.
[Horacio]: That watch had a fundamental mission in life, which was to bring light, to bring hope.
[Aneris]: And it fulfilled that mission.
[Daniel]: Over the years, the Argentine justice has determined that both terrorist acts, that of the embassy and that of the AMIA, were carried out by Hezbollah, using car bombs.
Both acts are still unpunished. The investigation into the attack on the AMIA has become one of the most complex court cases in Argentine history.
In 2004, 22 people, accused of materially collaborating in the attack were acquitted for lack of evidence and irregularities. Currently, there are international arrest warrants for several former officials of the Iranian government and the military, as well as a member of Hezbollah.
In August 2021, Iran appointed two of those accused as Minister of the Interior and Vice President for Economic Affairs. The Argentine government described it as an “affront” against justice and the victims.
Every July 18, at 9.53 a.m., a siren sounds at Pasteur 633.
(SIREN SOUND BITE)
A siren that picks up to demand justice for the 85 victims of the AMIA.
Aneris Casassus produced this story. She is a producer for Radio Ambulante and lives in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
This episode was edited by Nicolás Alonso and by me. Désirée Yépez did the fact-checking. The music and sound design are by Andrés Azpiri.
The rest of the Radio Ambulante team includes Paola Alean, Lisette Arévalo, Xochitl Fabián, Fernanda Guzmán, Camilo Jiménez Santofimio, Rémy Lozano, Jorge Ramis, Laura Rojas Aponte, Barbara Sawhill, Elsa Liliana Ulloa, David Trujillo, Camila Segura and Luis Fernando Vargas.
Emilia Erbetta is our editorial intern.
Carolina Guerrero is the CEO.
Radio Ambulante is a podcast of Radio Ambulante Estudios, and is produced and mixed in Hindenburg PRO.
Radio Ambulante tells the stories of Latin America. I’m Daniel Alarcón. Thanks for listening.