The Big One

When the Big One came, we were all unprepared; by all, I mean not just me and my children but the entire Mexico City. All of its 18 million inhabitants, which made it the largest and most populated city in the world, in 1985.

The Big One came in the morning, at around 7:25; I was still at home as I was in between jobs as the Third World Center had just closed. I was sitting on my bed, still in my nightgown; I turned on the radio to listen to my favorite news program. The commentator said, in Spanish, “ it is 7:25…it’s shaking…” I felt that too, my room was shaking up and down; I heard the house creaking as if its beams were about to crack. The newscaster suddenly screamed that the building in front of the radio station was collapsing before his very eyes and that people covered with white dust were rushing out of the building. The trepidatory up and down motion went on for at least 4 minutes; the bookshelf in the hallway looked as if it were about to topple over, so I rushed to sort of prop it up but immediately realized I was doing the wrong thing.

Are you all right, Leon. He was already late for school. Fatimah had earlier flown the nest and was living in a flat(in the compound of a friend of mine) nearer the Mexican state university where she was taking urban planning. I tried to call but the phone was dead. Later she told me that as she was opening the car door, the pavement beneath her feet cracked, a most terrifying experience.

The Big One came on a Thursday, 19 September 1985, (the birthday of my half-brother Ramon). As I look back, I cannot believe that that happened 32 years ago. Although it does not feel like yesterday,  (kahapon lamang), I am aghast that three decades could have passed rather imperceptibly. Now another Big One has hit Mexico in the two southern provinces of Oaxaca and Chiapas. Fatimah lives in Mexico with her family, but nowhere near the southern border. She said they were asleep and felt nothing; even if this earthquake was just as strong, its movement was oscillatory.

In 1985. Mexico City was incommunicado to the outside world. Although internal communications were not impaired telephone lines were down and there was no way I could let our families in Manila know that we were safe and sound. Cellphones had not been invented. A couple of days after, I received a call from a Mexican radio buff, who said he had received a frantic message from Manila, from a Mr. Antonio Araneta, on his two-way radio, asking him to please call me to find out if we were safe. After thanking him profusely, I told him to assure Mr. Araneta that his family in Mexico had survived the killer quake. Later, Tonypet told me that they were so alarmed by the news about people fleeing Mexico City; he was ready to fly in and rescue us.

Mexico city looked like a veritable war zone because some 400 buildings were reduced to rubble on the very day the Big One shook its foundations; 50,000 edifices, out of the 1.5 million buildings in the city, suffered severe damage. Curiously enough, the colonial structures at the historic center of the city remained intact unlike the constructions of 1950’s and 60’s vintage. Since that tragedy, the national building code has been reviewed, updated, and made more stringent.

The Mexicans rose to the occasion with an admirable show of national solidarity, especially among the younger generation who were the first to rush to the collapsed buildings and dig out survivors with nothing more than their bare hands. Volunteers, firemen, engineers, architects, and construction workers, even miners, rushed to the devastated Social Security Hospital and a multi-storied pediatric center. As babies were rescued from mountains of twisted steel and cement slabs, there was general rejoicing.

Mexico City was cordoned off by the military, no vehicles were allowed anywhere near the ruins. I joined some friends from the Philippine embassy to look for a Filipino family living in a downtown condominium. We had to park our cars at a distance and walk to the place. We saw French rescue teams with sniffing dogs looking for survivors amidst the wrecked edifices. The Hotel Regis had fallen like a deck of cards, the famous Hotel Bamer was flat on its face, but the elegant Art Deco Bellas Artes theater and the ornate Post Office were unharmed. Finally, we got to the condominium and could only stare in horror because it was split in half like a dollhouse. However, we were informed that all its occupants had time to vacate and were taken to a government center.

The day after, there was an after-shock which was just as strong; it was about 7 in the evening, I was setting the dining table when I felt it, so in a panic, I ran out the house into the street which was the wrong thing to do, I was later informed. The electric wires near the house could have snapped and hit me; I could have been electrocuted.

Here in Metro Manila, I live in a village with a jungle of residential condominium buildings. I have no idea of what the national building code is like, but I have noticed that a feeble tremor can rattle a wine glass. I am prepared, I am ready, but due to what happened in Mexico, I dread the Big One.