The Education of Earthquakes

The September 19th earthquake that hit Mexico City this year was on the 32nd anniversary of the 1985 quake that flattened half of the city and killed an estimated 10,000 people. It's a day of remembrance and sorrow. Earthquake drills are common here, happening in schools and offices all over the city, just as often as fire drills back home. On the morning of September 19th, there was an earthquake drill held throughout the city. People casually filed out of their respective buildings, coffee and/or cigarette in hand, chatting about whatever was going on in their day to day lives. Just another September 19th drill, nothing new. For those who lived in Mexico City in 1985, the September 19th drill is more of a tribute than a break from work. Their conversations being much less casual and more focused on remembering the chaos and destruction of the past.

After the drill, everyone returned to their daily tasks. Just a few hours later, lives would change.

1:14 pm (local time): I was in my dorm room on the 4th floor of my hostel in Condesa. I was sitting on my bed, putting on my shoes, when the building started to shake. The bunk beds started rattling and the window curtains started swinging back and forth, letting light in the room then blocking it out with the few seconds that passed before I was out the door.

When my brother and I were young, we used to race down the stairwell of the parking garage next door to our family's restaurant in Phoenix. We would go up and down, over and over again, expelling the energy with which the youth are so endlessly gifted. Part of me thinks that those downward races were practice for this day. I undoubtedly set a new record.

1:15 pm:

I was one of the last to join the growing crowd standing in the middle of the street. We hugged and we waited. There is really nothing else to do in a time like this. You wait, and you pray … and even if you don't pray, you pray.

1:21 pm:

Confident that the earthquake had ended, I ran back upstairs to grab my backpack, a flashlight, my toothbrush and my phone charger. I was in pure survival mode, not knowing what the following hours had in store for me. One of my dorm mates, Sofie, was in the room getting some things together as she had just finished showering. (Note: Sofie and I had both experienced the September 7th earthquake just a week and a half earlier, which felt much stronger than this one. There were no major damages or deaths in Mexico City on the 7th, so neither of us were expecting what was to come.)

"Vamanos, Sofie, let's get the fuck out of here!"

With the fear of an aftershock on my mind, I headed back down to the street, followed by Sofie, where the atmosphere had noticeably intensified.

1:26 pm:

We stood in disbelief, reflecting on irony of the date, September 19th. What are the chances? Unlike the September 7th quake, there was a much more potent sense of panic in the air. More people were running, but I wasn't sure where to or what from. A group of school children were being corralled through the street by a handful of teachers and advisers. A plastic string with colorful flags was being used to keep them huddled together and large orange traffic barricades were eventually used to protect the group from passing emergency vehicles.

A young woman who works at the hostel arrived, tears running down her face, frantic and breathless, describing what she had just seen. A building had collapsed right in front of her, about a half mile down the street from the hostel. Camera in hand, I headed that way. Within minutes I could see a large plume of dust settling in the distance.

1:38 pm:

I followed the crowd, collectively ignoring police orders to keep my distance. As I rounded the corner, I could see the remains of what used to be an 8 or 9 story building, collapsed into a pile of rubble, now only a third of it's original height. It was one of the most surreal moments that I have ever witnessed. The pure shock of what had happened and the endless flow of adrenaline combined to create a sensation that I had never felt before. There was only one thing to do. Only one thing on my mind and on the minds of at least 1,000 others, and that was to help.

For the next five hours, we did whatever we could. We passed chunks of concrete and stone, mangled clusters of rebar and fences, and whatever else was being removed from the massive pile of destruction. I worked tirelessly along side about every type of person you can imagine. Debris being passed from well dressed business professionals to dreaded and tattooed hipsters to grandmas and grandpas to high school kids who finally found a reason to pocket their fidget spinners. The sense of community was truly overwhelming.

The sun was starting to set as my body began to remind me that it would need some attention as well. Exhausted and starving, I headed back to the hostel. I was amazed with what I saw on the way back. A small park sits just a block a way from where I had spent my day. As I passed through, there were dozens and dozens of tables and tents that had been set up, collecting endless amounts of food, water, medical supplies, clothes, blankets, and other much needed supplies. In the same fashion that so many of us had been removing rubble throughout the day, an equal effort was being displayed through lines of people passing supplies to the park to be organized and distributed accordingly. I was once again overcome with the amazing sense of community. It was a long and emotional walk back to the hostel.

Around 9:30 pm, the electricity to the hostel was restored and I was finally able to reach out to my parents and many others back home who had yet to hear from me. I felt sick to my stomach, imagining the level of concern that my loved ones were experiencing back home. My phone was "dinging" non-stop for about five minutes once I was reconnected to the Wi-Fi network. Again, an overwhelming experience to be added to my already emotionally and physically exhausting day. Traveling solo can sometimes be very lonesome, but in this moment, I felt more love and energy being sent my way than I ever have before while traveling abroad.

I hardly slept that night, along with the rest of the city I'm sure. But as I closed my eyes, trying to clear my mind, I felt as though a reset button had been pushed. I felt completely depleted, yet incredibly restored. I felt lucky and grateful, but I mostly felt sad for those who lost everything that day. I felt helpless, knowing that there was only so much I could do now. I definitely consider myself a thrill seeker, but this was an emotional roller coaster that I wish to never ride again.

Now, two and a half weeks later, the city is slowly returning to normalcy. Shops and restaurants are opening back up and all the busy noises that Mexico City is known for are beginning to catch my ear once again. There is still a dark cloud hovering over the city and the efforts of local and international search and rescue teams are ongoing. But the people of Mexico City are resilient beyond belief, having experienced endless struggles in the past and always finding a way to prevail.

Mexico City just might be the culture capital of Latin America, not only due to it's size but also in attribution to the incredible amount of diversity that can be found here. I've met people from all over the world who now call Mexico City their home. There truly is something for everyone here.

I'll be posting a few short pieces describing some other unforgettable moments I've experienced out here, but I do realize that this is a time for healing. I plan to return to Mexico City someday when the dust has settled and the vibrancy of the endless culture again reaches out and grabs you everywhere you go. This is what Mexico City should be known for. As I move forward on this adventure, I'll be leaving a piece of me behind. It would take a lifetime to explore all the beauty and hidden gems that exist within this community. In this moment, I'm reminded of two undeniable facts: Life is shorter and the world is bigger than you or I can ever imagine.

Tell your family and friends how much you love them, and mean it. Challenge yourself daily. Do something that scares you. And don't ever get too comfortable, unless it's in your bed.

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Mucho Gusto

Pierce Owen Mettler, born in Phoenix, Arizona, in 1987, is an American writer and poet. He is a lover of the arts and fascinated by culture, immersing himself in places that others only dream to discover. 

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