United States Geological Survey

Mexico City 1985, collapsed Hospital Juárez

It is eery and surreal that on Sept. 19, on the very day of the anniversary of the 1985 Mexico City earthquake, another devastating quake would hit Mexico City. 

I filed the nightmare images of Mexico City in 1985 deep into my memory hoping to ease the painful impact of being there. It was a difficult experience and I didn’t anticipate that I would see it again. But I am watching a repeat of those tragic days via today’s news coverage.

I could not easily forget the 1985 Mexico City earthquake. I was sent there to cover that story  for KFWB Newsradio right after it hit. I was sent there with a group of other journalists to travel on a small prop plane because the Mexico City airport was shut down.  

At that time, I was like a lot people born and raised in Los Angeles. We were often cavalier about quakes. After all, the rolling quakes of my youth, quickly subsided and didn’t cause much damage.  

When I landed in Mexico City, however, I was mentally unprepared for what I would not only see but what I would experience — that included the powerful aftershocks that would turn roads into jelly, and slice buildings in half and tumble in the dust. I can still see apartment buildings with some floors still standing with clothes still hanging in closets. All communication was shut down.

I wasn’t prepared to hear the screams and see the pained faces of desperate parents outside a primary school hoping their children would somehow be rescued although their school had sunk into the ground. People carried signs with photos and their loved ones names. Heavy equipment didn’t come soon, so  anyone who could find a shovel started to dig while many tried desperately to dig into the rubble with their bare hands.

More than four thousand people died in the 1985 Mexico City earthquake in 1985 and thousands more were left homeless. The death toll fortunately is much lower this time around, perhaps due to attempts to improve construction.

However, I remember the screams and panic as people ran into the street with each aftershock but had no place to run to. They ran hoping that where they were going was somehow safer than where they stood although the power poles swayed dangerously above their heads.

Today does mirror 1985. 

In 1985, like today,  people are sleeping outside on the street rather than risk going back into their homes where they fear another aftershock could cause the structure to fall on top of them.  

There is no protection. How can there be when there is literally no earth beneath your feet. 

I remember during an aftershock, I’d take a step but there wasn’t ground under my feet. What I felt was more like standing on a wave of water. I was reminded that  Mexico City was built on a dry lakebed. 

People were unsure as to where to go to be safe.  Do you stay inside with the threat of the building you’re in collapsing on top of you?  Do you run outside where power poles and electrical lines might fall? In 1985 there was no communication to the outside world; there were no cell phones and while reporters had arrived to tell this story, they had no means to get their stories out.   Reporters slept in the lobby of the Sheraton Maria Isabel Hotel, close to the American embassy. 

I took a chance and went to my room on an upper floor. Still somewhat naive, on the first night of my arrival, I attempted to recover from the slow trip by taking a bath although the washroom was dark.  I dipped into the water but then jumped out, realizing that I was bathing in sewage. I then noticed that the wall in my room had started to separate and I could look many floors down.  

This week’s quake took down buildings and has at last count killed more than 200 people and came just two weeks after a magnitude  8.1 quake had already devastated Mexico’s poorest indigenous population in Oaxaca and Chiapas in Southern Mexico. 

There have been several quakes along the West Coast this week and here in L.A. Some people didn’t even notice, and those that did went on with their day. 

After Mexico City 1985, I gave earthquakes their proper respect and had new concern. A concern that there are those who still chuckle and roll their eyes at other’s fear of quakes — even after our own 6.7 magnitude 1994 Northridge earthquake —and that we continue to revert back into denial. 

We  haven’t heeded warnings although scientists have been clear. A large earthquake will definitely occur right here in our backyard. There is much you can do. Be prepared.