When a devastating earthquake hit Mexico City last month, thousands of lives were snuffed out in an instant. During the desperate days that followed, survivors, who against all odds had been buried alive under tons of fallen rubble, waited for deliverance from their tombs. For those who had escaped the quake’s first effects, waiting to learn the fate of parents, children and other relatives was an agony that lasted days. This is the story of two of those people, strangers to each other, whose paths briefly crossed in the wide destruction.
A week before it all happened, Samantha Palacios, a 24-year-old Mexico City nursing student, had a dream. From her bed, which seemed to be spinning around at the bottom of a whirlpool, she saw her deceased grandmother descend through the funnel and heard her pronounce the ominous words, “Be careful.” Palacios awoke with a start and in the following days lost her appetite and became so restless that by Wednesday night, September 18, she could sleep only in fits. Shortly before 7 the next morning she was preparing breakfast for her husband and their infant son. Over the first groans of street traffic three stories below she listened to the cheerful newscaster speaking from the TV set placed on the kitchen counter. The air was crisp, and the coffee on the stove was about to boil.
At that moment, miles across the city’s center, Emilia Diaz, 72, snuggled under her covers, ignoring her husband’s gentle scolding that she was sleeping too much. “Wake up, woman,” 70-year-old Apoloneo said from the doorway of their bedroom. “It’s going to be a fine day.”
Those were the last words she would ever hear from her “pet,” as she affectionately called him; in the next few seconds the world came down on them both. The third-floor apartment that they shared with their daughter and her family shuddered, and the 10 floors above them tilted and collapsed in one giant motion. In an instant Emilia Diaz was thrown toward the doorway, where she would lay pinned on her side for four days. There, in the blackness, the old fruit seller listened to her 7-month-old baby grandson cry in terror.
Samantha Palacios was watching the newscaster try to dismiss “the little tremor” occurring at that moment, when she noticed the coffee begin to slosh out of the saucepan. As she ran past the TV, the picture went black. She snatched up her son, flew by her husband, who was emerging from the bathroom, and the three skipped crazily down the three shaky flights of stairs and into the street. The building held, yet from somewhere through the eerie silence that followed came the first faint cries for help. Later in the day, as the news of the disaster spread, Samantha Palacios heard that the 13-story Nuevo León apartment building—where 15 members of her family lived—had collapsed. “No,” she said to herself. “It’s a lie.”
Alone, she made her way through the rubble-strewn downtown streets toward the giant Tlatelolco complex of 35 government-subsidized apartment buildings—huge, gray blocks of concrete and glass, each labeled with a name of a Mexican state. Until 20 days ago, when she switched living places with a cousin, the Nuevo León had been her home since childhood. Now, as she approached the ugly mass of masonry and twisted steel, moving trance-like among the rescue workers with their shovels and machines, Palacios still refused to believe.
Not more than 20 yards in front of her, trapped under the weight of tons of debris, Emilia Diaz could only listen to the cries of her grandson and the hysterical screams of her daughter—also named Emilia—whose legs were crushed.
“Take the rock off me, please, God, please,” her 33-year-old daughter cried.
“Stop yelling,” the elder Emilia said. “Put up with it, save your energy.”
Eventually the baby grew silent, and perhaps by Friday morning—there was no way to tell—the younger Emilia fell suddenly, finally silent. Her 15-year-old son Rogelio, who was also trapped nearby, murmured, “Please, God, take care of my mother. Take her with you.” Then Rogelio, a tough, American-style football player in school, also grew still and died. Grandmother Emilia lay quietly, intent on saving her strength. She could move slightly, her mattress pressed against her side. Dust and pebbles fell on her face. She worried that she would suffocate. Her leg itched and she couldn’t scratch it. She listened to the muffled shouts of rescue workers and the occasional staccato of a jackhammer. “They’re taking so long,” she thought as she squirmed ever so slightly, afraid that one of the slabs encasing her would shift and crush her completely.
Outside, Samantha Palacios stood near the medical teams, anxiously waiting for news of survivors dug out of the toppled building that once housed some 400 families. She was standing with her father, Gregorio, who had been spared by the first quake because he had left early for work that morning. Of her 14 remaining family members—her mother, brothers, sisters, aunts and cousins, all living in two three-bedroom apartments—only one would appear. It was her mother, and as the loosely covered body was carried by on a stretcher to a makeshift morgue across the street, father and daughter glimpsed the face. Gregorio fainted, and after a stunned moment Samantha began laughing uncontrollably. Injected with a sedative, she wandered away, vowing to help remove the dead wherever she could.
When the second big quake rumbled across the Mexico City valley at 7:40 Friday night, Emilia Diaz held her breath until the vibration and the gnashing of broken concrete had stopped. When she was not crushed, she later said, she had no doubt that she would be rescued.
At that moment, only blocks away in the tunneled-out ruins of another building, Samantha Palacios—now a volunteer rescue worker—continued pulling cadavers from the debris. Ignoring the danger, she hardly paused when the ground and chunks of masonry around her began to heave. She labored at several sites, and by Sunday morning, exhausted and with no sleep and little food or water, she trudged back to the Nuevo León site.
That afternoon, atop the ruins, one of the Swiss rescue dogs sniffed out a “serious mark,” as its handlers call the spot where a live person might be buried. “Silence!” someone shouted, and as the order echoed through the area, the antlike squads of diggers, crane operators and other workers stopped to listen for a human voice. “Is there someone there?” a workman shouted.
Many feet below the broken slabs, Emilia Diaz feebly answered, “Yes.”
“What’s your age?”
Then she thought, “If I tell them, they’ll think I’m an old woman and might leave me here. But if I lie and they find out, what will they think of me?” So she told them the truth, and the men began to dig, cut and pull away the debris.
Off to one side, Palacios grimly watched from behind a line of soldiers keeping relatives and others from entering the rescue site. Most of the day she had stood waiting with hundreds of others, many wearing dust masks that could hardly camouflage the stench of decomposing flesh. At times the hum of prayers from the crowd became a crescendo of helpless anguish. Now and then shouts for silence would hush activity, then with a wave of a worker’s hand, the pursuit for life would resume.
By 5:10 p.m., 82 hours after her burial, Emilia Diaz was lifted out of her tiny hollow. She looked at the overcast sky, smiled and said, “It’s going to rain.” As she was placed gently onto a metal basket stretcher, applause broke out among the workers. The next thing she said was, “My pet…my husband.” The nearest workman could only pat her hand. Then the crane hook lifted the cage and swung it clear of the rubble. On the ground, Emilia and her stretcher were trundled swiftly past strangers, including a stoic-faced Palacios. At that moment the old woman abruptly pushed away the comforting hands of a male nurse. “Don’t get fresh with me, young man,” she said with a laugh. For the first time in four days, Samantha Palacios cracked a barely discernible smile. Then she turned away to leave the site, passing by a group of grimy rescue workers resting next to a flattened car. The men were hunkered around a Playboy picture, fished from the mountain of destruction. Samantha Palacios never noticed, as she hurried away to rejoin her husband and infant son at home. Behind her came the cry, “Silence!” And once again all ears listened for life.