"Less than an hour after I arrived into Mexico City, the earthquake hit..."
Less than an hour after I arrived into Mexico City, the earthquake hit. I was in an Uber, on the way from the airport to the B&B where my girlfriend was staying. Inching our way up to a red light, I saw a woman on the sidewalk tottering back hysterically. Two men held her up. I thought she was having a heart attack or a seizure. When we came to a full stop we felt the quake.
My Uber driver hopped out of the car. I slung my backpack over my shoulder and followed suit. By this time everyone was out of their cars. The shaking was powerful, less an up and down bucking than a lateral swirling. It was almost hard to stay on your feet.
Then I saw what the woman was seeing. Towering above us was a giant billboard about five-stories high. It sat atop a tall stem. It was swaying heavily. We watched the way you’d watch a tree about to be felled. We were preparing to run—if it came down it would crush about four lanes of traffic, and whatever else in its path.
The quake mellowed. The sign stopped swaying. Everyone got back in their cars. Traffic started to move.
The damage revealed itself slowly. The shattered windows of a storefront on the sidewalk. The crumbled concrete façade of an apartment building strewn across the street. We rounded a corner and saw a building that was not quite flattened, but a lot of roof had come down. People were gathered in front of it, shouting up to the smashed windows.
I’d been FaceTime-ing with my girlfriend. She was on the top floor of the three-story B&B, talking to the owner, when the quake hit. He swiftly grabbed her by the arm and escorted her down the stairs and out to the street. A heavy gas smell filled the air. She and everyone else on that block gathered in a nearby park.
Traffic was near gridlock. There was a contained pandemonium on the streets. As much as my Uber driver wanted to get me to where my girlfriend was waiting, he couldn’t. I hopped out and walked the remaining couple of blocks. I found Kim. We embraced, and as my cheek rested on the side of her head, I watched a woman move frantically through the park, shouting someone’s name.
It was hot out. We needed water. We went looking for somewhere open—electricity was out; nearly every place of business was closed. Along the way we saw an injured woman on a stoop. A man wrapped her ankle in gauze. That was the first injured person we saw. We still had no clue how bad it was.
We found a tiny market. We bought water. We sat in the park. A lot of distraught faces, a lot tears and long hugs. A man in a cowboy hat tried to calm his barking dog. Another woman searched the crowd for her lost loved one.
A well-dressed, elderly man sat on the edge of a dry fountain, his head buried in a book. With a pen he underlined passages, made notes in the margins. It was hard to tell if his inspiration transcended the earthquake, or if was a reaction to it. I had to know what so obsessively consumed his attention. It was a book by the Dalai Lama.
Sitting not far from him was a 20-ish woman with a bag full of large bottles of water. It suddenly occurred to me that with no electricity and the heavy gas smell in the air—not to mention the strong possibility of aftershocks—we might be spending the night in this park, and we might need some supplies.
Then a loud voice, a guy standing on a bench, rallying volunteers to help with the rescue effort. The woman with the water ran over to him, and so did everyone else. Her bottles of water, I quickly realized, were not for herself, but for possible survivors, or anyone else who might need water.
We soon learned that around the corner from the park, a block or two away from our B&B, a building had collapsed. We walked over to check it out. A human chain of volunteers passed chunks of rubble down the street. A man held a sign that read SILENCIO! They were listening for the shouts of people trapped in the building, or the sounds of ringing cell phones—loved ones were dialing residents not accounted for.
It was terribly sad. But it was also incredibly heartening to witness the solidarity of the people of Mexico City. They operated like one big extended family, concerned not for their own well-being, but for the well-being of others. Everyone we knew in the city, everyone we saw on the streets, rallied to help however they could.
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---Jamie Brisick is a writer, photographer, and director. He surfed on the ASP world tour from 1986 to 1991. He has since documented surf culture extensively. His books include Becoming Westerly: Surf Champion Peter Drouyn’s Transformation into Westerly Windina, Roman & Williams: Things We Made, We Approach Our Martinis With Such High Expectations, Have Board, Will Travel: The Definitive History of Surf, Skate, and Snow, and The Eighties at Echo Beach. His writings and photographs have appeared in The Surfer’s Journal, The New York Times, and The Guardian. He was the editor of Surfing magazine from 1998-2000, and is presently the global editor of Huck. In 2008 he was awarded a Fulbright Fellowship. He lives in Los Angeles. For more of his work check out jamiebrisick.com & @jamiebrisick