News of Tuesday’s earthquake in central Mexico also marked the anniversary of the Sept. 19, 1985, quake that hit the nation’s capital. It was a magnitude 8.1 temblor that killed some 10,000 people, injured many more and left countless people homeless.
A recent graduate from the University of Arizona journalism department, I had been at the Arizona Daily Star for about a month and was the newest member of the photo staff.
Information about the quake was slowly trickling in that morning when I received a call from photo editor Chuck Freestone telling me I was going to Mexico City with reporter Keith Rosenblum.
At the office I was handed about $200 cash that I stuffed in my front pocket, and off we went to try to fly into Mexico City.
The few days I spent as a journalist in Mexico City during the 1985 earthquake brought me to the point of utter exhaustion and were some of the most memorable of my journalistic life.
All commercial flights from Tucson into Mexico were canceled after the quake. The only way to get there from Tucson was to drive four hours to Hermosillo, Sonora and hope to catch a domestic flight. We were eventually able to get aboard a plane to Mexico City, exchanging tickets on a tarmac just as the stairway onto the jet was being pushed away from the airliner.
It was about 1 a.m. when we arrived, jumped into a taxi and proceeded to document the destruction. Towering buildings had become piles of smoldering rubble. Tents, some made from empty cardboard boxes, filled small parks and any open areas.
I had never seen so much destruction or despair.
At the same time, I witnessed so many people working for hours to help strangers. Dust-covered rescuers scrambled over huge slabs of concrete, twisted metal and broken glass in a frantic search for survivors.
Occasionally, work would come to a complete halt in the hopes of hearing any sound from survivors, which would embolden rescuers to work harder.
Others provided food and drink to the new homeless. Their payback: tearful gratitude.
Fumbling around in the dark, I was pulling rolls of film, notepads and pens out of my pocket. The $200 stuffed in there was lost.
Keith wrote his news story by hand. I wrote photo captions on pieces of torn notebook paper.
People traveling back to Tucson helped us share the story of the mass destruction with Star readers. Businessmen, vacationers and nuns became our lifeline to Tucson, carrying with them our stories and photos and delivering them to the newsroom.
We eventually found a room on the 10th floor of the Hotel Galeria, overlooking the statue of El Angel de la Independencia near the Paseo de la Reforma, the wide avenue that cuts across the heart of Mexico City.
In the early evening, during a short break in our room, an aftershock in the 8.0 range struck.
From our window, I could see the Angel and buildings sway.
Trying to scramble off the 10th floor of a hotel during an earthquake is like trying to sprint on a rowboat.
We got to the stairway and persuaded about a dozen people waiting for the elevator to join us on the stairs instead.
We made our way back to La Reforma and continued our reporting.
What I saw over the next several days became the source of nightmares that still haunt me.
Because of the overwhelming number of dead, a temporary morgue was established at a baseball field.
People waited in a long line that led to right field to begin the grim task of looking for their missing loved ones.
What awaited them was a bizarre scene where a misty haze, caused from dry ice used to preserve the decaying bodies, drifted around the faces of the men, women and children of all ages who were laid side by side.
A Catholic priest gave last rites to one person then quickly moved to another as families grieved their losses.
My heart still goes out to people who endure the wrath of nature at its worst.
A difficult part of such an ordeal is that there is no one to blame or point an angry finger. And there is no one to answer the question “why?”
I do know there are journalists who will continue to be out there in the aftermath of disasters, telling the stories that will affect readers, listeners and viewers as they continue to search for answers.