“’85 Mexico Quake: Ruins Then, Greater Faith Today,” Ensign, June 1986, 76–78
When disaster struck Mexico City in the form of a devastating earthquake at 7:19 A.M. on 19 September 1985, a number of Latter-day Saints suffered the effects of the quake at very close range. Ten of them were killed. Many others found good reason to thank Heavenly Father for protection from death. And for one, finding life beneath the tons of rubble that had been a hospital was a reaffirmation of the importance of every soul. Following are the stories of four affected by the disaster.
“It’s papa! It’s papa, and he’s alive!” the Ramos children shouted when the taxi stopped in front of their house in Merida, Yucatan.
The shouts brought their mother running to greet her husband. Having him return seemed like a wonderful gift, for news accounts from Mexico City following the earthquake had made them fear he was dead.
“There are no words to express what I felt in those moments [of reunion], loving my family as I did, and having them confirm their love for me by their tears and affection,” says Teodulo Ramos.
He had bade them goodbye on September 16 to fly to Mexico City for a job interview. Maria Esthela Rosales de Ramos knew it was her husband’s habit to stay in the Hotel Regis when he visited Mexico City on business, and he made no exception on this trip.
After his interview on the seventeenth, Brother Ramos was told that he would be appointed a regional construction supervisor for the Church in the southeastern part of Mexico. His new responsibilities would make it necessary to move to Mexico City, and he recalls that on the following day, September 18, finding a house to rent for his family kept him away from his hotel room until about 9:00 P.M.
He did not feel sleepy, so he considered going out to a play or a movie. But he chose instead to go to bed around 10:00 P.M.
“About 1:30 in the morning, I woke up thinking about the pressures of my new assignment, about my family, about the new house, and I lay that way until morning. I felt a restlessness—something strange, an uncertainty.”
“I know that in those moments when I awoke, the Spirit was with me. It was whispering to me that something was going to happen,” he reflects. Had he stayed out late the night before, he almost certainly would not have awakened, or at least would have arisen later, “and perhaps I would not be telling this.”
Brother Ramos rose at 5:00, got ready to go to his new job, and left the hotel by 6:00 A.M. He took the subway and had already arrived at the Church offices when the earthquake hit. There was no significant damage at the Church offices; the heaviest destruction was confined to an area in the center of the capital, with major damage in scattered areas of the city. Many large buildings fell, including, Brother Ramos learned on a radio broadcast later, the Hotel Regis. Thousands of Mexicans died in the earthquake, which measured 8.1 on the Richter scale. Approximately thirty thousand were injured, and fifty thousand were left homeless. A major aftershock one day later added little to the death toll, but brought down more of the damaged structures.
Knowing his wife had probably heard news reports of the destruction of his hotel, Brother Ramos tried every means of contacting her. Unable to make contact on the nineteenth, he went to the city of Tulancingo, in the adjoining state of Hidalgo, and tried without success to call her from there. He went on to his brother’s home in Poza Rica, Veracruz, but was still unable to contact his wife. So he returned to Mexico City and took a flight home to that joyful reunion with his family, three days after the earthquake.
He never returned to the Hotel Regis to try to reclaim his luggage. He knew it was buried under tons of debris. “I can replace it. But life cannot be replaced,” Brother Ramos says. “I give thanks to the Lord that I am alive.”
At 7:00 A.M. that Thursday morning, Bertha Reyes Valdez de Tellez, a counselor in the presidency of the Relief Society of the Aragon Second Ward, Mexico City Mexico Aragon Stake, was at her post on the third floor of the San Juan telephone center. Her floor held three rooms full of switching devices. Six to eight women usually worked in a small long distance department office there, and by that hour, five of them were to be at work.
One of them was late in arriving, so Sister Tellez went to look for her. As the latecomer entered the office, Sister Tellez felt the building begin to sway. Realizing what was happening, they murmured a few words of comfort to each other as they positioned themselves in the door frame. The other women in the room clustered there too.
“At first I was not worried,” Sister Tellez recalls, “but then I felt the intensity [of the earthquake] increasing.” Panes of glass fell out of the windows, ceiling panels dropped, water ran from broken pipes in some walls, and chunks of building materials fell from the walls, shattering the glass on top of desks.
“Really, I wasn’t frightened or panicky; I was resigned that this was the end. I closed my eyes to pray,” she remembers. She tried to shut out the wailing of coworkers. When she opened her eyes after her short prayer, the shaking had stopped, but she was covered with fine debris and the air was full of dust. She could hear her companions making their way down the stairs.
Her route out of the office took her past the only telephone that appeared intact. She tried it, and to her surprise, it worked! She called her home to assure herself of her family’s safety. Others returned to use the telephone, until some of their supervisors cautioned that they might be endangering themselves by remaining in the building. Sister Tellez and the others picked their way down the stairs, which were almost without support from the crumbling walls.
In the street, Sister Tellez could tell that the adjacent annex building with its microwave tower had also been badly damaged. It was “incredible to see that all the telephonic advances accomplished during fifty years had been wiped out in less than two minutes.”
Looking back on the experience, she was struck by the contrast between the peace she felt as she prayed during the quake and the crying and wailing of her companions around her. She was confident she was addressing a loving Heavenly Father who was watching over her, regardless of whether that particular moment brought the end of her mortal life.
The close brush with death has helped her understand, Sister Tellez explains, that for those who live as our Heavenly Father has directed, “it will be marvelous to stand one day in his presence with complete confidence and without fear.”
Because his flight did not depart until 11:30 P.M., Lino Alvarez, associate director of the Church Educational System in northeastern Mexico, arrived in the capital city after midnight on the morning of September 19. He had arranged to attend meetings the next morning with two other CES associate directors, Alfonso Flores and Filemon Flores. They were to review 1986–87 budgets with the CES area director and zone administrator.
All three are Church leaders in northern Mexico. Brother Alvarez, a former mission president in the southern part of the country, is regional representative for the Monterrey Mexico, Monterrey Mexico Libertad, and Saltillo Mexico regions. Jose Alfonso Flores is president of the Chihuahua Mexico Stake, and Filemon Flores is president of the Chalco Mexico Stake.
The three men were staying at the Hotel Principado. Despite the early hour at which Brother Alvarez had checked in, he awoke well before his 6:00 A.M. wake-up call. He had said his prayers and was preparing for the day when the call came. He felt some sense of urgency in being about the day’s business, so he called his two companions, and they agreed to meet him in the lobby at 7:00. Their first meeting, they thought, was at 8:00. (Later they learned it actually had been scheduled for 9:30.)
From the hotel lobby, the three men descended to the garage to get Filemon Flores’ car. They discussed eating breakfast at the hotel, but decided to leave immediately instead and eat at the Church’s Benemerito School, where their meetings were scheduled. Should they go back to their rooms and take their suitcases with them? No, they decided, they would be returning to the hotel that night to sleep.
They were at a street corner about four miles from the hotel when the earthquake hit. They felt a strange vibration of the car, noticed that a man trying to step up onto a nearby curb was having trouble doing it, and then realized that everything around them was in motion. They had a good shaking, but continued on to their meetings when it stopped.
At the school, they learned how serious the disaster had been. They heard on a radio broadcast later in the morning that their hotel had collapsed and that more than one hundred people had died there.
In the afternoon, they went back downtown, half hoping things would not be as the radio had said. But they were shocked by the sight of what had been a hotel of seven or eight floors reduced to a pile of iron bars and concrete.
“We felt that the Lord took us out of that hotel, and that he was the source of our feeling of urgency about leaving that morning.”
The experience left Lino Alvarez with rekindled humility and gratitude, and with renewed resolve to serve the Lord during the time granted him on earth. “Now the words that I always use when praying have a special and different significance for me: ‘I thank thee for life.’”
Marco Antonio Soriano was at his work as a microfilm laboratory technician when the earthquake shook the city. Learning from a radio broadcast about the destruction elsewhere, he hurried home, concerned because his wife was alone with their week-old baby.
His wife, Irma, is a nurse who worked the 7:00 A.M. shift in the gynecology and obstetrics building at Mexico City’s General Hospital. Had her doctor’s forecast been correct, her baby would have been born on the day of the earthquake or the following day; she had planned to give birth in the building where she worked.
It was a double shock, then, when she learned the building had collapsed in the earthquake.
Seeing his wife so upset, Brother Soriano promised to go to the building and learn the fate of her colleagues, after first checking on the welfare of some of the families in their ward (Estrella Ward, Mexico City Mexico Churubusco Stake). At the hospital, he learned that the morning-shift nurses on his wife’s floor were all listed as missing, including her dear friend Sabina.
Suddenly there was a shout that rescuers were needed, and Brother Soriano went to help. “We had no equipment, only our hands and our strength. There were about three hundred men, and before us a six-floor building that had been converted into a heap of debris.” They formed a human chain, moving rocks with their hands until tools and more help began to arrive.
While others worked around the edges of the building, Brother Soriano, who knew its layout, began to break a hole in what had been its roof. He made an opening through which he, the smallest of the rescuers, could enter what was left of the sixth floor. Dragging himself through the wreckage to the area that had been the newborn nursery, he discovered a dead infant in an incubator. Sadly, he crawled back out. He had been working amid the debris for eight emotional hours.
As he left to go home, he encountered one of his wife’s nursing colleagues near the wrecked building. She told him that for one reason or another all but two of his wife’s friends on the morning shift had been out of the building when the earthquake struck and were safe. But Sabina was one of the two missing.
Two days later, on Saturday, Brother Soriano returned to the hospital for another day of volunteer work. This time he broke through the ceiling of the fifth floor. Around him, other volunteers continued removing bodies of infants, nurses, and doctors. Descending through the hole he had made, he dragged himself toward an incubator he had spotted. Brushing off the plastic top, he peeked at the small form inside—and it moved! “There’s a live baby here!” he called. Crawling out to obtain a saw, he reentered and soon had cut through the plastic top of the incubator. When he had the baby in his arms, he cried. “Two lays buried, and alive!” he thought to himself. The child still wore the hospital wristband that bore his name—Javier Contreras. Workers had clustered around Brother Soriano’s small entranceway, and when he handed the baby out of the hole, there were jubilant shouts. Many wept.
The rescuers continued working and later brought out a nurse who was still alive. But as the days blurred into a series of exhausting 4:30 P.M.-to-midnight shifts for Brother Soriano, hope of finding any other survivors waned. On the twelfth day after the earthquake, he encountered a ventilation duct. With a rope tied around him, he squeezed his way down it to the rubble that had been the first floor. He encountered only corpses; there were no responses to his calls, no more noises from among the heaps of stone and concrete. He climbed out of the rubble to go home about midnight. Twenty minutes later, workers discovered the body of his wife’s friend, Sabina.
Throughout his involvement in the rescue efforts, Brother Soriano says, “there were disagreeable experiences, experiences that hurt, and then others that brought us so much joy we shed tears of happiness. It was marvelous to see a child come out from under the debris, knowing that if the Lord protected him, it is because he still has something to do in this life.”
His thanks, Brother Soriano says, goes to the Lord “for protecting me and my family” and for giving him the opportunity and the courage to rescue that baby.