A down pillow, grey with dust, came down the line. I was angry at it, at how light it was, how easy it was to pass.
Mexico City is built on a lakebed, and is cradled by mountains. In Mexico, earthquakes roll, and like waves, gain amplitude as they travel through the sedimentary bed. The first earthquake I felt in that country was the one on September 7, 2017.
When the earthquake alarm sounded, I didn’t know what it was until my roommate’s face contorted with fear. “Tremor!” she cried out, and grabbed my hand. We ran out to the street, where we stood with other neighbors, waiting to see what would happen. The ground began to roll. My roommate had previously pointed out to me where whole neighborhoods had collapsed in 1985. When the waves came this time, they were different from the sharp, rigid staccato I knew from earthquakes I had experienced in California. These waves rolled, and I bent my knees to keep my balance. I felt like I was standing on a standup paddleboard.
The epicenter was 400 miles south of us, in Chiapas. The Chiapas earthquake flattened towns in southern Mexico, leaving many homeless, and triggering mass evacuations. Because of the distance, damage in Mexico City was minimal. Still, the effects of it in Chiapas, Oaxaca, and other states were constantly on my mind as fundraisers popped up all over the city. When the Mexico City earthquake hit not even two weeks later, I bolted.
This time, the waves were ferocious and came well before the alarm sounded. I dropped my phone and ran out without grabbing anything, not even my keys or my shoes. My building was twisting and roiling so violently that I couldn’t count on the stairs being where I needed them to be. I pressed the palms of my hand against the wall to get downstairs. Outside, cars had stopped, and I joined my neighbors who had gathered in the street. We watched the swinging power lines, the rocking buildings, the bouncing light posts, waiting to see what would happen. The movement lessened and then stopped.
A moment later, someone asked, “Is it over? I can still feel it in my legs.”
We nodded, because we too could feel the movement in our legs, much like the hanging planters whose swinging still played out the earthquake above us. Slowly, we moved to the sidewalks and traffic started up again, snarling quickly as people found that they couldn’t move through the city because of fallen buildings, fires and gas leaks.
I went inside and texted my family that I was OK. After thirteen months in Mexico City, I had half-packed to go home: My flight would leave three days later. I filled up our water filter and several pots with water, in case we’d lose water in the days to come, grabbed my climbing helmet, threw on heavy jeans, hiking boots, swapped my contacts out for glasses, filled my backpack with what I might need and went to see what needed doing.
While not even a single photo had fallen off our walls, five blocks away in the central Colonia Del Valle district, two buildings on the same block had collapsed. Hundreds of people had gathered to help clear the rubble and, hopefully, rescue anyone trapped inside. The larger building had been reduced to a four-story hillock of debris. The first floor of the smaller building was still intact but inaccessible because of a two-story mound of fallen debris that extended out into the street. Its upper floors had accordioned in on themselves. The wrought iron railing and window guards had twisted and sheared.
Topos, the volunteer search and rescue group that formed after the 1985 earthquake, worked on what remained of the buildings. They had named themselves “Topos,” or moles, because of how they tunneled into mountains of wreckage. They determined what the safest way to remove rubble was, directed the flow of debris out of the area, called for quiet when they were listening for survivors. The few soldiers present were digging out rubble or breaking down pieces of cement with sledgehammers. Lines of volunteers snaked down the short side street to the larger of the two buildings. Some lines passed empty buckets and tools in towards the building and the other passed out buckets that were weighted down with building parts. Runners dragged larger receptacles down the middle of the street and out to the trucks waiting on a different street. Volunteers came through every ten minutes, offering up sandwiches, snacks, bottles of water and face masks that city residents had dropped off at the makeshift aid station someone had coordinated on a nearby street, Gabriel Mancera. With each day, the volunteer efforts became more coordinated and efficient, with bike and motorcycle brigades moving supplies rapidly around the city and excavation sites becoming more organized. The military was ever-present in supplying trucks, men, and some organization, but much of the relief work relied on citizen-led volunteer efforts.
I stood in a line, passing buckets and shovels until new arrivals came and, frantic to work, pushed me and others out of place. A man handed me a shovel and motioned for me to remove a heap of debris at the base of the smaller building. This was a first step so that Topos could search the building for survivors.
My shoulders strained under the weight of each shovel load that I transferred to an industrial garbage can. Others offered whatever rubble bins they could find: a grocery store shopping cart, a child’s plastic wading pool. After a while I found a single pink sandal, its sequins dulled by dust. I paused, wondered where its owner was, then slid my shovel under it and the cement and turned and flung my load into the waiting bin.
The dust was so thick that I couldn’t see the street when I looked up, but I only needed to see to the end of my shovel. I dug alongside four others. We didn’t speak as we worked: dig, lift, turn, dump. Soon, we hit a tangled mess of wires. Our shovels caught on them. Wire clippers? I hadn’t brought any. I looked around. A boy, maybe fifteen, with a thick shock of hair hanging over his eyes, stood by us, staring up at the sky, or maybe where the building had stood, his jaw open, a saw hanging from his half-opened hand.
“¿Puedo usarla?” I asked, motioning at his saw. He handed it to me and went back to his blank stare. The man who had been working by my side wordlessly pulled the cords taut so I could saw through. They popped free and I coiled them and shoved them into a half-filled work bucket someone carried past us. We returned to digging, pausing only when fists went into the air and a relative quiet spread through the crowd, when even the runners paused dragging their waste bins to hear, carefully, for a survivor’s voice.
Applause swelled from the base of the other building and traveled down the lines to us. I turned and saw them as they passed alongside me: four rescuers carrying a stretcher with a man on it, his face and neck bright red, his brown shirt green only at the edges where blood hadn’t yet spread. His eyes were closed; he didn’t move.
We turned back to work, until some topos told us to stop: Reducing the rubble further would threaten the stability of the building.
Where else was help needed, I asked.
“Edinburgo,” he told me, pointing towards the other building, which sat on the corner of the street I was working on, Escocia, and a side street, Edinburgo. A truck had finally arrived on that side and they needed help.
I joined a line of people passing buckets out to the truck. I fell into a new rhythm: Turn to take the bucket from the man on my left, then turn to hand it off to the man on my right.
Floodlights came on.
A down pillow, grey with dust, came down the line. I was angry at it, at how light it was, how easy it was to pass, even though I knew that it had gotten to the line because it was in the way of someone working on the mound of building. A child’s toy bucket, filled with dust and small rocks. Solid, at least. Take, turn, pass. The sky turned navy blue. The stars were brighter and more numerous than usual for the city.
Salt had dried on my skin, tightening it. Take, turn, pass. Then I took a cement boulder so heavy my arms sank. The bones of my ankle ground against each other. Turn, pass. My arms light again.
The truck filled and drove away. Another one came to replace it. People left and others came to take their place. A plane flew overhead. I was content to pass until the sun came up and to continue on until the mound had been reduced to a vacant lot.
Michelle writes about art, borders, culture, health and science. She lives in Mexico City, where she is working on a collection of short stories and a memoir.