'This Is Not a Drill': Residents of Mexico City Recall the Moment the Earthquake Struck

Rescuers continue to dig through remains to save any survivors

Lucas Martinez didn't pay attention to the alarm signaling the earthquake drill when it sounded in Mexico City on Tuesday morning. He wasn't going to do the evacuation drill this year, he told a friend.

"I was like, 'I'm in my underwear, it's like four years in a row, and it's always the same,'" he said. "I'm not going to do it."

Less than two hours later, the drill turned to reality when a magnitude 7.1 earthquake struck, devastating the city and killing more than 200 people. It was the second major quake to hit the country in less than two weeks, and it fell on the anniversary of the deadliest earthquake in Mexico's history, an 8.1 earthquake in 1985. Each year on Sept. 19, schools and workplaces in Mexico conduct earthquake drills to commemorate the catastrophic event that left thousands dead.

For Martinez, a Spanish journalist at Reforma newspaper who has lived in Mexico City for four years, it was the strongest earthquake he had ever felt. He said that although he ignored the drill this year, the protocols he learned in previous years were useful. He lives on the second floor of his building so he was able to evacuate quickly.

"The moment I went down, the situation was really movie-like," he said. "You have the cars stopping in the middle of the street, large masses of people just dwindling around, trying to stay in the middle of the street to avoid debris."

Martinez described a massive turnout of ordinary citizens helping those in need.

"There's a lot of people trying to help," he said. "Every building that has fallen down has like, not kidding, 1,000 people outside trying to help."

Martinez rode his bicycle around the city assisting wherever he could, at one point forming part of a human chain to move debris.

A day after the earthquake hit, Martinez said that supplies are now needed more than manpower. 

It was the memory of the 1985 earthquake, not the evacuation drills, that prompted such a turnout of people wanting to help, he said. Residents knew that the authorities were probably not going to be able to respond quickly, he said.

"The '85 earthquake is so deep in Mexico City society that it's basically generation-defining," he said. "So on that day, you have all the people talking about the earthquake, everyone remembering it."

Martinez hopes that the show of solidarity will not fizzle out after a few days because people will be homeless and continue to need help in the months ahead.

"We need to be clear that this is going take a while," he said. "There were people just this year that received their houses after the 1985 earthquake. What we can't do is forget about it."

In a video message, Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto urged people to be calm. The priority for authorities is to rescue people who are trapped and to treat those who were injured, he said.

"Every minute counts to save lives," the president tweeted.

Oscar Alaniz, a school principal Central Christian Institute, had just finished teaching his students to go to safe spots in the building and how they should position themselves in an earthquake.

Two hours later, when he started feeling the shaking, Alaniz told them, "This is not a drill. This is the real thing. Everybody do what they practiced in the drill."

He's lived in Mexico City all of his life, and Alaniz said Tuesday's quake was the strongest he's ever felt.

"This one was very strong and the earth felt like it was whipping," he said. "My students were very scared, but thank God, nothing happened in our school."

But another school, Enrique Rebsamen Elementary School, did collapse, killing at least 25 people, 21 of whom were children, Mexico’s Education Secretary, Aurelio Nuno, confirmed. Eleven others were rescued.

Rescue workers, soldiers, police and ordinary citizens are still digging through the debris looking for any remaining survivors in the school, south of the capital. Some families said they were sent text messages from relatives trapped inside the school, according to The Associated Press.

Thirteen-year-old Sara Isabel Lopez Martinez, was inside the school right across the street Tuesday morning. She said before the earthquake happened, her school had their annual drill and "ceremony," where the children sang their national anthem and were taught about the 1985 earthquake.

"I never felt prepared for what could happen," she said. "They just told us to go downstairs."

Sara said that poles to be used to evacuate were installed at their school, but students were never taught how to use them.

A professor from Ireland was teaching his first class on the ground floor of a university, UAM-Azcapotzalco, when the evacuation drill started, effectively ending his class. Then just 15 minutes into his second class, the siren sounded again.

"Everything started moving from side to side and then up and down – both types of earthquake movement, the second being particularly destructive," said Patrick Cuninghame. "It felt like trying to balance yourself on a boat."

He said it went on for what felt like five to 10 minutes.

"I think the drill helped since we all knew what to do and in fact everyone moved quickly," said Cuninghame, who teaches sociology. "So in a way maybe Sept. 19 will be a day of infamy in Mexican history for the two terrible earthquakes, but perhaps it helped reduce the number of victims since people were at least half prepared for it."

Darya Pilram, a San Francisco native who was working at the 33-story Torre Diana building in the city's central business district at the time of the earthquake, said they had just conducted a drill, evacuating down 27 flights of stairs.

"We got caught in a big bottleneck and commented from the stairwell that we might actually feel safer in our offices if a real earthquake hit," she said.

But when the real earthquake did hit, they evacuated just as they had practiced an hour earlier.

"Our building is new-ish and swayed like a giant palm tree with lights swinging and everyone gripping onto the walls," Pilram said. "We stayed mostly calm and eventually evacuated back down the 27 flights of stairs."

Pilram said she came home to broken glass and lamps, and electric lines surging and blowing up with sparks outside the window.

Emilie Mutert contributed to this article.

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