Remembering ’85, Mexico City public leaps into quake rescue

Baruch García stood at an intersection Tuesday afternoon after a deadly earthquake, trying to direct traffic away from a road cutting through La Condesa’s lush Parque México. On the other side of the park, hundreds of volunteers – from a young boy in a yellow soccer uniform, to a woman in slacks and ballet flats, and a man wearing an apron from a nearby café – lined the street for blocks, helping to remove rubble from an eight-story collapsed building with an unknown number of people buried inside.

Tuesday afternoon, a 7.1 earthquake in nearby Puebla State rocked Mexico City, some 75 miles away. It toppled homes, schools, and other structures, trapping citizens and killing at least 86 in the capital and 217 nationwide, according to the Mexican Civil Defense Agency. The death toll is expected to rise. Mr. García was in the park walking his dogs when the quake hit.

“The first thing I thought when it was over was, ‘I have to help,’ ” he says. Someone called out that a building had fallen on the other side of the park – they needed traffic to stop. So, he pulled his car around to the intersection and blocked it, along with one other person’s car. They posted small hand-written signs that read, “No hay paso,” only moving one of the vehicles when soldiers, ambulances, or other officials needed through.

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García wasn’t the only one moved to help. The moment the ground stopped trembling, Mexico City residents jumped into action, directing traffic after street lights went out, offering the use of bathrooms or telephones, setting up collection sites for food, water, flashlights, and blankets, and using their bare hands or tools at their disposal to remove rubble in hopes of rescuing residents trapped in buildings. At least one engineering firm announced free home inspections and ride-share companies were temporarily offering free transport. 

The response is in part a legacy of Mexico’s haunting 1985 earthquake, which left an estimated 10,000 people dead and another 30,000 wounded. The government’s reaction at the time was disorganized and inept, and as a result, citizens took search, rescue, and post-quake support into their own hands, creating grassroots civilian response teams.

Yesterday’s temblor fell on the 32nd anniversary of the 1985 quake. Just hours before the ground began to violently shake, office buildings and schools across the city participated in an…

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