Jesus Jimenez | Longreads | October 2017 | 13 minutes (3,155 words)
September 19 started out as a tranquil, but eerie day in Mexico City. The sun rose at 7:24 a.m. over the Popocatépetl volcano and onto the homes and offices and workplaces of the city’s nearly 8.9 million residents.
That Tuesday morning, commemorations were being held throughout the city. It was the 32nd anniversary of the 8.1 magnitude earthquake that killed more than 5,000 people in Mexico’s capital in 1985, causing 412 buildings to collapse and more than $3 billion in damages. Mexican law states that all schools and public institutions are required to hold earthquake safety drills every September 19. Some places choose to practice their safety drills earlier in the morning to avoid interfering with their work or school days, while others participated in the national earthquake drill scheduled for 11 a.m.
Just after 1 p.m., my uncle Ángel Jiménez was walking to the local market to buy some fresh produce. He pulled out a note on his phone to double-check his grocery list before turning it off to conserve the remainder of its low battery life. As he put his phone away, a peculiar thought popped into his head. If an earthquake ever happened again, I don’t care what happens to me. I’d be OK knowing my wife and two kids are safe.
“It was a one of those crazy thoughts,” Jiménez says. “It was one of those things you feel silly for even allowing it to pop into your head. At the time, I didn’t think of it as a premonition.”
At 1:14 p.m. the supermarket started shaking. Initially the shaking didn’t scare Ángel. Mexico City is in a subduction zone, which means the oceanic Cocos plate is slowly sinking under the continental North American plate, making Mexico prone to earthquakes. On February 5, 2012, a 4.8 magnitude earthquake shook Guerrero, Mexico, 218 miles from the nation’s capital. On May 6, 2013, a 4.1 magnitude earthquake struck Puebla, Mexico, 82 miles southeast of Mexico City. Earlier in the month, on Sept. 7, a deadly 8.1 magnitude earthquake hit offshore Chiapas, Mexico killing at least 90 people and damaging hundreds of homes and buildings.
Although earthquakes don’t happen every day, Ángel and the people of central Mexico are familiar with slight tremors. Ángel is blind, but he doesn’t use a walking stick, nor does he have a service dog. He didn’t think running out of the market would be a wise idea if he couldn’t see where he was going, so Ángel held onto one of the counters. He wanted to take cover under the counter, but his muscled, 5-foot-9-inch frame couldn’t fit. At first Ángel thought something was wrong with the counter, as if something was loose.
“It felt like a light tremor, then there was a sudden jerking pull,” Ángel says. Within a matter of seconds the shaking turned from innocent and forgettable to forceful and historic. It would be hours before Ángel would learn that the shaking came from a 7.1 magnitude earthquake about three miles northeast of Raboso, Mexico, 70 miles southeast of Mexico City.
As the shaking intensified, Ángel had flashbacks to the devastation that occurred 32 years ago. He’d been here before. Read more…