A powerful earthquake shook central Mexico on Tuesday, collapsing homes and bridges across hundreds of miles, killing at least 149 people and sending thousands more fleeing into the streets screaming in a country still reeling from a deadly temblor that struck less than two weeks ago.
The earthquake caused apartment blocks to sway violently in the center of Mexico City, including in the historic districts of El Centro and Roma, crumbling balconies and causing huge cracks to appear on building facades.
Panic spread through the city’s core; rescue vehicles screamed toward damaged buildings, and neighbors took on heroic roles as rescuers.
At least 49 people were reported killed and 44 buildings severely damaged in the capital alone.. Ten other people died in the surrounding state of Mexico, 55 across the state of Morelos, 32 in Puebla state and three in Guerrero state, according to a tweet from Luis Felipe Puente, head of the national Civil Defense agency.
The earthquake struck on the anniversary of a 1985 quake, which killed thousands of people and devastated large parts of Mexico City — a tragedy that President Enrique Peña Nieto had commemorated earlier in the day.
At around 11 a.m., Julian Dominguez heard alarms sounding in the neighborhood of Iztapalapa, part of a citywide drill to mark the anniversary of the 8.0 magnitude quake. Schools and other buildings evacuated, but he kept working at his computer.
About two hours later, he started to feel the building move, and alarms sounded again.
« It started really slowly,” he said, but within seconds it was clear that this was no drill. Dominguez raced down a flight of stairs. Crowds of people already had gathered outside. Women were crying, worried for their children still in school.
« It was strange that it fell on the same day …as another earthquake that caused so much damage, » said Dominguez, 27.
The federal government declared a state of disaster Mexico City and dispatched 3,428 troops to affected areas there and in nearby states.
« We are facing a new emergency in Mexico City, in the state of Puebla and Morelos, following the 7.1. magnitude earthquake,” Peña Nieto said, adding that he had asked all hospitals to help care for the injured.
On Amsterdam Street, a normally tranquil road that rings a major park in the upscale Mexico City neighborhood of Condesa, a large apartment building disintegrated into a pile of concrete and dust.
Hundreds of residents helped a team of soldiers, police officers and firefighters search the rubble for survivors. Many of the men were shirtless in the late summer heat, and everyone was covered with dust.
Some rescuers commandeered shopping carts from a nearby supermarket and formed a human chain to haul away rubble. Several times, a warning went up about a possible aftershock or gas leak, sending hordes of panicked people running.
But there were few places that would be safe. Amsterdam, like many streets in Condesa, is narrow and lined with trees and power lines, all of which could turn deadly in an aftershock.
The neighborhood was filled with thousands of dazed survivors too afraid to return to their homes. They stood around with dogs and suitcases, holding their heads and checking social media feeds on their phones. Many ducked into their apartments to bring food and water for rescuers.
Juan Jose Martinez, 52, felt the earthquake at his home several miles away. There was no damage to his neighborhood, so he and three relatives grabbed shovels and construction helmets and set out on foot to the most affected areas.
“What else would we do?” he said. “This is our Mexico. Everybody needs help sometimes.”
In Roma, an upscale neighborhood that experienced some of the worst destruction in the 1985 earthquake, several low-rise buildings collapsed Tuesday. Among them was a commercial structure that housed a furniture store on the first floor.
Itzel Hernandez Galvan, 21, was in her car, about to head home from her job at a marketing firm, when she heard people screaming and realized that part of the building was about to collapse onto her car. She opened the door and ran as half of the building broke off, crushing her car and taking out trees and power lines.
« I ran and I survived, » she said, still covered in dust. Others weren’t so lucky. Several people were buried alive, she said.
Rescue workers managed to pull at least eight survivors from the rubble, but Galvan said she saw a child was dead.
As a large crowd gathered, Mexican soldiers labored to clear away slabs of concrete. At one point, the soldiers thought they heard someone calling out for help from beneath the rubble and appealed for silence. But after some time, they determined that it was nothing.
Most people were at work or at school when the earthquake hit. Across the capital, the survivors poured into the streets to walk home, searching for information about loved ones and posting the names of the missing on trees and lampposts. Public transportation had ceased to function in a sprawling city so large it can take three hours to get home.
“It’s very horrendous,” said Guillermo Lozano, the humanitarian and emergency affairs director for World Vision Mexico, a Christian humanitarian organization. “Everything was moving — the stairs were moving, things were falling down.”
Among the destroyed buildings was a supermarket where survivors could be heard crying out for help, he said. There were also reports that a kindergarten had collapsed, trapping children under the debris. Staff members at a children’s hospital were tending to patients in the streets.
Building standards have improved since the 1985 quake, Lozano said, but there are many old buildings in the city, which were among the worst-hit.
When the quake hit, he was in a meeting coordinating relief efforts for southern Mexico, where 90 people died in another powerful earthquake on Sept. 7.
“We will need a lot of help,” Lozano said.
Authorities in Morelos reported major damage to the cities of Jojutla, Cuernavaca and Axochiapan.
« This is the first time in the history of Morelos that we have experienced something like this—a 7.1 magnitude earthquake,” the state governor, Graco Ramirez, told reporters. « We’re going to work hard overnight to try and rescue as many victims as we can find.”
He said Morelos was receiving assistance from other nearby states. « We’re all united and working together, » Ramirez said. « There is no doubt that we will recover from this. »
Mexico City is prone to major damage in earthquakes because it sits on an old lake bed that amplifies the shaking.
The U.S. Geological Survey calculated the preliminary magnitude of Tuesday’s temblor at 7.1. The epicenter was about 80 miles southeast of Mexico City in the state of Puebla.