MEXICO CITY – After earning fame burrowing into piles of rubble in disasters the world over, including the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City, Mexico’s “mole” rescue workers are on tragically familiar ground, pulling people from ruins in their home city.
The moles — “topos” in Spanish — formed as a volunteer search and rescue group in the aftermath of the devastating quake that struck Mexico City in 1985, saving lives in the working-class neighborhood of Tlatelolco where there had been a poor government response.
They became known as fearless workers, putting their lives at risk to help others and traveling to disasters as far afield as Haiti, Nepal and the Philippines.
After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center, a group of Topos headed to New York City to help look for bodies at ground zero.
Now, they are dealing with another deadly quake on home turf in a test of what they have learned over the years and Mexico City’s progress in disaster preparedness.
Oscar Guevara, a doctor from the central Mexican state of Queretero who joined the Topos of Tlatelolco search and rescue group in 2010, said his team had found three people alive, along with the bodies of those who had died, in the rubble of one building.
Describing how he rescued a woman named Joanna at 5 a.m. on Wednesday from beneath a collapsed building, Guevara said the “intense emotion” of finding someone alive was all the motivation he needed to do the dangerous work.
“Obviously it is a point of pride to be helping here,” Guevara said, taking a rest in the city’s Condesa district where several buildings collapsed in the quake.
“But we are trained to give the same reply in Mexico or overseas,” Guevara said, dressed in the Topos’ typical red T-shirt and yellow hard hat.
Starting life as an ad-hoc group responding to the needs of the hour, the Topos formalized in 1986 and are now registered with the United Nations. They participate in international disaster training programs.
Hector Mendez, who started a branch of the Topos after the 1985 quake, said he had just returned from the United States where he assisted in relief efforts in Clearwater, Florida, and Key West after Hurricane Irma.
After Tuesday’s quake, he and other Topos persuaded motorcycle police to rush them to the ruins of the Enrique Rebsamen school in the south of Mexico City where at least 25 people died, many of them children, when the building collapsed.
Television images of emergency services and civilian volunteers working side-by-side to save trapped students have captured the nation’s heart.
“I feel proud because my government is giving me respect,” Mendez said.
In 1985, few in the then fast-growing city had experienced a major earthquake.
The capital learned quickly, however, with residents creating a self-help urban culture that could be seen on the streets this week. Neighbors brought food and water to rescue workers and makeshift food banks sprouted up across the hardest hit areas.
Miguel Angel Gomez of the Topos’ International Brigade said the apparently lower death toll in this earthquake was a sign of the changes in Mexico City since 1985, with tougher construction codes meaning far fewer buildings collapsed.
“In 1985 the damage was worse because there were many buildings that were old. The new buildings have new technology,” Gomez said.
While new buildings were also damaged in Tuesday’s earthquake, most of the buildings that collapsed were old.