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The Earthquake After the Drill

At 11 a.m., on the 32nd anniversary of the Mexican earthquake of 1985, there was the customary earthquake drill, so people could practice for a real-life situation. Same procedure as every year. At 1 p.m. we agreed to have lunch. At 1.20 p.m. hell broke loose.

I sometimes can’t help but think about the situations I find myself in when the most inconvenient things happen. When the skyscraper, a very noticeable one since it’s the only one on the entire street, started shaking, I was between floors. Running out of the bathroom I had just enough time to press myself against the wall and put my feet in the most stable position possible during an earthquake with a magnitude of 7.2.  It was me, the cleaning ladies and stairs above and below, all of us caught in immediate darkness.

My security instructor had been right at our chat from two weeks ago. Those who are old enough to remember what happened in 1985 scream during every earthquake that followed. One lady screamed while another tried to calm her. I don’t know how I was in that moment. I don’t think I was scared. At first it felt like this whole thing was not happening to me but I was just watching from a distance as this was happening to something that looked like my body. Then the adrenaline kicked in. As soon as the actual movement ended, I ran up the remaining stairs to the door.

My colleagues were all gathered under and around the zona de seguridad sign. They pulled me into the crowd and made sure I stayed close. A young Mexican who was probably working in another office tried to calm me by saying that this was just a bit like a rollercoaster ride. As we gathered our things as quickly as possible, I gave one last look to the plastic bag with the salad I had just bought for lunch before everything happened. I held up the bag and put it down again. I was not going to be the stupid one who ran around with her bag and her salad.

When I was reunited with my family later that same day, I was asked a few times whether I was scared. To tell the truth, the actual fear kicked in once we were about to leave the building. You never know when the next shaking will come around and with dozens of people coming down the stairs from the 18th floor you really learn what fear of the unknown means, if this is the right way to express this in English.

For the first few minutes everything seemed just like a few hours ago during the drill. Everybody stood gathered outside while the civil security staff gave orders in Spanish. Next thing I knew, my friend grabbed my hand and we both started moving down the street as fast as we could. With the screaming around us growing louder the term mass-panic took on its real-life form. Some of us heard the explosion right behind the building we had just left.

I shall dare to possibly exaggerate when I say that the whole situation started feeling a bit like Roland Emmerich’s 2012 movie. It was a feeling out of this world watching as people tried to reach their loved ones and as mothers tried to find out whether their kids had left their schools safely. Even as I tried to contact my own parents on y cell phone, I, as the rest of us, kept fighting the invisible yet omnipresent crash of all communication lines. All without effect.

Another building – we had now moved a few streets further- seemed to have caught fire. Military helicopters- according to my other friend- were making their way through the dark grey, almost brown smoke. I watched as some people came down the street in nothing but a bathrobe and socks. Soon we couldn’t hear our own voices over the noise of the emergency vehicles. Someone let his drone ascend into the air. Others got out their phones and if they already couldn’t reach family and friends, they at least tried to film what was going on.

There was no way we were getting lunch so we went ahead to get our friend’s dog from her building. In some parts, traffic was pure hell, in others, police had already blocked the streets. A building was said to have crashed somewhere in the neighborhood. The air smelled like smoke and the dust of broken stone and construction material. Most people remained in the streets, looking up to the buildings that have just been evacuated as if they might fear the fall of one of them. Somewhere in a corner by a hotel, a young Mexican woman was crying her heart out. I promise you, it was a sound with the power of breaking your own heart into a million pieces.  Between all this chaos one could see two types of people. Those who, in all calmness, kept eating their tacos at the vending carts and journalists with their giant, professional photo cameras, preserving the ongoing events for the rest of eternity.  In between all this my friends and the dog, safely brought out of the building by my friend’s neighbors, risked their own safety to get me home. I salute them and their concern for me! Mexico is a place where it is the easiest to find a family.

I know that aside from me, the rest of my fellow people have experienced this multiple times over the past years. I bow my head in respect for their bravery.




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