Surprised by the Killer Quake!
Eyewitness Report From Mexico
“I was working on the tenth floor when the building began to shake. I leaned against the door, which suddenly shook loose and fell on me. As I tried to slide out from under the debris, I spotted my children scattered in the rubble. My oldest son, Jose, was drenched in blood. I was sure my family was dead!”—Jose Melendrez, Sr.
IT WAS September 19, 1985. At 7:19 a.m. Mexico City’s population of 18,000,000 was shaken by one of the century’s major quakes, measured at 8.1 on the Richter scale.
For many, the timing was in their favor. An hour later, schools and places of business would have been teeming with people, all in buildings that could have become gigantic grave sites. Of the more than 700 buildings that collapsed in Mexico City, at least 100 were schools!
U.S. Ambassador John Gavin, who observed the devastation from a helicopter, said: “It looked as if a giant foot had stepped on the buildings.” Trapped inside them were thousands—both dead and alive! According to the Mexican daily El Universal, over 8,000 bodies were recovered during the first 15 days, but estimates of the total dead reached up to 35,000.
Over 40,000 survivors were treated in hospitals and aid centers. Long lines of people waited to identify the corpses. Names of victims were read on television, over the radio, and printed in newspapers. Men, women, and children wandered the streets in despair—they had nowhere to go. At least 400,000 people were affected to some degree.
When the quake struck, Jose Melendrez’ wife was in their 11th floor apartment, one floor above where he was working. She reports: “I was helping my six-year-old daughter Elizabeth get ready for school. Suddenly, the building began to rumble. I ran to warn my son Jose and his wife, at the same time calling to my two daughters Lourdes and Carmela. They took Elizabeth to the rooftop, and as the building collapsed, I grasped the staircase. When the earthquake subsided, the 11th floor was on the 4th floor!
“As we helplessly watched, the floor collapsed under Jose and his wife, throwing them down even farther into the wreckage. We were sure they were dead, especially after we heard a boiler and a gas tank explode simultaneously on the sixth floor. The gas tank, weighing 1,500 kilograms [3,300 lb] hit my son. Yet, to our surprise, they were still alive!”
Remarkably, the entire Melendrez family survived, although Jose junior was seriously hurt. “For us, it has been a very painful experience,” Jose senior explains, “but we thank Jehovah God for all the loving help we have received from our Christian brothers.”
Gregorio Montes and his family lived on the fifth floor of an eight-story building. He explains: “My wife Mary was accustomed to getting up early to take our daughter Lupita to school. They left the building about 7:15 a.m., just minutes before the quake. My five- and six-year-old daughters and I woke up frightened as the building shook. Everything was moving! But as I began praying to Jehovah, we immediately felt a calmness come over us.
“Just then, entire windows began to break and pop out! Walls began falling. By then I heard horrified women and children screaming. With my two little daughters sitting quietly on the bed, I continued on my knees praying to Jehovah.
“All of a sudden—in the midst of all the screaming, the swaying of the building, and the flying dust—the building collapsed! It was as if we were going down in an elevator! Although one of my daughters at that moment calmly told me, ‘Father, Armageddon is here,’ I assured her that it was not yet.
“There was a moment of silence—all was dark and dusty. The space between the ceiling and the floor in our apartment was reduced to only about 50 centimeters (20 in.)! Caught in the debris, I could see my daughters covered with rubble and glass. Yet, they were unhurt—with not even a scratch!
“From their position in the street, my wife Mary and Lupita saw the building fall. They were certain we were dead. However, of the 32 families that lived in the apartment complex, we were among the few that survived!”
Sixteen-year-old Judith Ramirez was already in school when the quake struck. “The teacher had begun dictating to the class,” she said. “Then all of a sudden I felt the building rock, as if I were in a ship on the high seas. There was panic. Students tried to get out by breaking windows and smashing doors.
“From a third-story window, I could see that half the building had collapsed, with some 500 students and school personnel still inside! I was afraid that our side of the building would also cave in. Since the stairway had disappeared, we made our way out of the school through a tunnel made for us. When we finally freed ourselves from the wreckage, we saw buildings on fire and chaos in the streets.”
To the Rescue!
Shortly after the earthquake hit, the Mexican government took steps to handle the situation. The police, firemen, and other officials coordinated their efforts to save as many lives as possible. Some 2,800 marines participated in the rescue operations, along with tens of thousands of others. The military was also put on alert for possible looting. More than 22,000 victims were taken care of in relief centers and camps.
Airplanes loaded with provisions and rescue equipment arrived from nearly 50 countries. Hundreds of foreign experts came as volunteers. The cooperation of so many thousands of people was covered by news media worldwide. As a result of this team effort, within ten days after the quake, 3,266 persons were rescued, and at least 17,000 missing were finally located. But to rescue a survivor was not easy.
Dangerous Rescue Efforts
Cries of individuals still inside the ruins were heard more than a week after the earthquake! One young volunteer simply sat down, buried his face in folded arms, and cried. He felt so helpless. The rescuers were often unable to pull away the rubble for fear that the building might collapse, and that added to the despair.
On the other hand, there was a feeling of joy each time a survivor was rescued. “I had the satisfaction of rescuing nine persons,” said paramedic Juan Labastida. He had arrived with a rescue team from the United States. “Although we lacked vital equipment,” he explained, “we crawled into the rubble anyway, searching for survivors. It wasn’t easy.”
Describing how they saved two lives, he said: “After arriving at what was left of a restaurant, we used a special electronic device to detect vibrations. So sensitive are its readings that just the vibrations from the energy from the human body can be detected. Without it, we may never have sensed the presence of four persons who were trapped inside! With the use of a long hose, we sent water and oxygen into the restaurant’s storage room, where two men and two women had been trapped for several days.
“As the rescue team waited outside the ruins, an expert from France and I began working our way into the building. The same electronic device also detected vibrations—signals of weakness—in the walls and floors as we made our way through. We were taught to touch the walls and floors with our hands. If the building was about to collapse, we would feel a tingling sensation due to the dirt falling from within the walls. It took us seven hours to reach the survivors.
“By the time we reached them, the two men had died. The two women were clinically dead, but we gave them mouth-to-mouth resuscitation and heart massage until they finally revived 15 minutes later! Yes, our efforts paid off!”
Was It All Over?
“Friday evening, the day after the earthquake,” explained a member of the Watch Tower Society’s branch staff in Mexico, “I was being shown the home of Sergio Moran, which was located on the second floor. The walls were cracked, and the heavy ceilings and floors had been weakened. Amazingly, the building had withstood the quake, although many surrounding ones had collapsed, leaving dead and injured victims buried in their debris.
“The neighborhood was tense and gloomy. Ambulances had been rushing by all day long. Just around the corner, there was a long line of people waiting to identify corpses of friends and family. I had just spent the entire day scouting the downtown area on foot. Many streets were roped off because of tall buildings that were leaning and seemed about to fall at any moment. When hearing the calls for help from people still trapped in the ruins, it was hard to keep from shedding tears.
“Suddenly, while I was talking with Sergio Moran, a second quake struck! At first, there was dead silence. I asked myself, ‘Could it be just my imagination?’ Then the lights went out. Clocks stopped at 7:38 p.m.—some 36 hours after the first quake. The building I was in began to sway back and forth. All doubt had been removed from my mind. It was happening all over again!
“Still on the second floor, we scrambled to the doorway and supported ourselves between the doorposts. We prayed intensely to Jehovah for help. As the building rocked, we could hear a piercing squeak coming from the rooftop and the beams supporting it. After having seen the condition of the home, I was sure the building would collapse! Yet it held up, and we made it safely to the street where we were met with chaos, screams, and uncertainty.
“Fortunately, the second wave did not affect the area as badly as the first quake. In the 12 days following the first earthquake, at least 73 tremors with a Richter scale reading between 3.5 and 7.3 were reported!”
“There Will Be Great Earthquakes”
Christ Jesus spoke of “earthquakes in one place after another” as one of the features of the “sign” indicating that we are living in “the conclusion of the system of things.” (Matthew 24:3, 7) He was not referring simply to tremors; rather he stated that “there will be great earthquakes.” (Luke 21:11) Thus, the recent disaster in Mexico—along with the more than 600 major earthquakes that have occurred since 1914—adds to the reality of Bible prophecy fulfilled in our day.
Jehovah’s Witnesses in Mexico—although caught by surprise for a moment—appreciate Christ Jesus’ comforting words: “As these things [the different features of the sign] start to occur, raise yourselves erect and lift your heads up, because your deliverance is getting near.” (Luke 21:28) Yes, we are assured of a brighter future. In God’s coming new system of things, his people will be protected from earthquakes and other such disasters.—Revelation 21:3, 4.
At least 38 of Jehovah’s Witnesses and those associating with them lost their lives in this tragedy. Too, there was considerable material damage. At least 146 families of Witnesses have lost their homes. As the Bible notes, due to “time and unforeseen occurrence,” distressing situations may befall any one of us.—Ecclesiastes 9:11.
However, immediate action was taken by Jehovah’s Witnesses to locate all the Witnesses in the affected areas. “It was wonderful to see such loving concern for us,” relates Victor Castellanos. More than 5,000 kilograms (11,000 lb) of food were received and distributed to all those affected. Witness families in undamaged areas have shared their homes and material belongings with their homeless Christian brothers.
Escaping with their lives from their ruined home, Juan Chavez, his wife, and two of his children drove to the local school to locate their other two children. Returning home, the family of six was surprised to see gathered around their home a large crowd of Christian brothers—including a traveling overseer and local elders.
“They thought we were still trapped inside and wanted to help us!” reports Mrs. Chavez. “It was amazing! We had never even met some of the Witnesses who had arrived to help us.”
Yes, although the killer quake has left its scars on Mexico, it has not adversely affected the faith and courage of Jehovah’s Witnesses there. As Mrs. Melendrez, quoted earlier, says: “We have all taken advantage of the situation by spreading the Kingdom hope to everyone we come in contact with. The earthquake has not made us give up in our efforts to serve Jehovah. On the contrary, we feel stronger in our faith and more determined than ever.”
[Pictures on page 22]
Jose Melendrez, Sr., his wife, and the building where they lived
[Pictures on page 23]
Judith Ramirez survived the collapse of the CONALEP school