Alberto Montes de Oca stood patiently in the shadows of a once leafy residential street in Mexico City’s Del Valle neighbourhood as Red Cross workers, troops police and volunteers scrambled to find survivors buried under the rubble of a toppled building.
His sister Blanca lived on the sixth floor of a seven-floor building that came crashing down after a 7.1-magnitude quake hit central Mexico shortly after 1 p.m. on Tuesday. More than eight hours later he was hoping for some news.
“I spoke to my sister an hour before (the quake), just about daily life, not because we had a premonition or anything,” Montes told Xinhua news agency.
The quake occurred on the 32nd anniversary of the deadly September 19, 1985 temblor that killed thousands in Mexico City. A nationwide drill had been planned to commemorate the disaster.
The drill had seen office workers and school children calmly file out of their offices and school buildings to the safety of the street.
Two hours later, the rattling and shaking of a real earthquake had them scrambling for the exits again.
At least 226 people have been confirmed dead in central Mexico, including the capital and surrounding states, according to the head of Mexico’s civil protection agency, Luis Felipe Puente.
How did Montes find out his sister’s building was one of the 29 in Mexico City that were toppled by the quake?
“My son called me. He was watching the news and recognized the building. ‘My aunt’s building collapsed,’ he told me,” Montes recalled.
He made the 30-minute trek on foot from his home to his sister’s as public transportation had come to a standstill.
“I was up there (atop the fallen building) trying to remove rubble. I came prepared with a small saw, a shovel, a hammer,” said Montes, pointing to a duffel bag with tools.
After a while, officials told those digging through the rubble to stop, because it was getting too dark and too dangerous, said Montes, noting the quake had knocked out power all along the street.
As night fell, floodlights were trucked in and trained on the building, now a heap of twisted metal, broken bricks and piles of plaster. Dust filled the air like a thick fog.
Young volunteers in T-shirts and bike helmets joined uniformed police officers and soldiers in camouflage fatigues to shift through the wreckage and remove buckets of rubble that were then passed from one to another, away from the disaster site.
Amid the noisy and chaotic coming and going of people and vehicles, organizers would periodically call for silence so rescuers could listen carefully for signs of life. For a few seconds, everyone would freeze in place. Hearing nothing, the rescue effort resumed.
Earlier, atop the rubble, Montes had dialed his sister’s cellphone and heard it ringing.
“You can hear the phone ring, but that’s all you hear,” he said, still standing in the shadows of a building across the street. He had no plans to leave. “I’m hopeful,” he said.
Fatalities were reported in the capital and the surrounding states of Morelos, Puebla, Mexico State, and Guerrero, with the death toll being expected to rise as rescue workers continued to search for survivors trapped under rubble.
According to the US Geological Survey, the epicentre of the 7.1-magnitude quake, which hit at 1.14 p.m., was located five kilometers from Raboso, Puebla.
Its proximity to the capital — and its shallowness, just 51 km below ground — made the quake feel as intense as the destructive 8.2-magnitude earthquake that hit southern Mexico on September 7, reportedly the strongest ever to hit the country in a century.
Nearly 30 buildings collapsed in the capital. Television footage showed the normally placid canals of the city’s floating gardens of Xochimilco, a popular tourist attraction, churning with waves, the boats tossed about as if on the high seas.