19th September 1985 07:19

This is a year of anniversaries. Two hundred years of Independence. A hundred years since the revolution. Twenty five years since the huge earthquake that devastated Mexico City in 1985. At precisely 7.19 in the morning. The time this post was published. I’ve set this post to publish at that time.

I often write posts in advance and set them to publish later. It has occurred to me that one day I’ll do this, and find that between scheduling and publishing, Mexico City will disappear in ‘the big one’. Crosses fingers…

So far my experience of earthquakes has been….mild excitement? Even a bit  fun? The strongest I’ve sat through is a 6.3 on the Richter scale a couple of years ago. Many times less powerful than the 8.1 that struck in 1985. But still powerful enough to have flattened cities and killed tens of thousands in one foul sweep elsewhere in the world.

Fortunately, or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it, Mexico is hit by so many earthquakes that anything not built to withstand a good shaking is removed from the scene pretty quickly.

There’s a big one of 7 plus every decade on average. Which, with my total time in the country being nearly 6 years by the time I leave, gives me better than a 50/50 chance of experiencing one. Not so far, but there’s a few months left for one to strike! I prefer the little ones I think though. Although I have to say, you do wonder how what seems like such a mild shaking can have such disastrous consequences. Well, you wonder how afterwards, with hindsight.

There’s a simple rule with earthquakes. Get out of the building. If you hear bricks or masonry crack, then get out of the building quickly. During the 6.3, I grabbed a red bucket and tossed my turtles in it and left the building with my little green shelled friends in tow.

It only took me about twenty seconds. I watched a video of the earthquake in Haiti earlier in the year. From the start of the shaking to the sound of collapsing buildings….about 20 seconds. Next time the turts will have to fend for themselves. Every second counts.

The video below tells the story of the 1985 quake. It contains a few grisly scenes, so if dead bodies isn’t your thing, don’t press play. There’s also a six part documentary, part one of which is here. You can find the following parts through that video. Documentales Mexico has plenty of really cool, non earthquake videos that are also well worth watching.


11 thoughts on “19th September 1985 07:19

  1. Zipper says:

    That’s really sad and tragic. The earth is always in constant motion. I was caught up in a 7.6 magnitude earthquake that struck Taiwan on 9/21/99. Buildings all around mine tumbled and crumbled taking many lives. I definitely feel for those people in Mexico city. The human loss, misery and a very long road to recovery is a very painful experience to say the least. I hope that it doesn’t happen again, and that the newer buildings will withstand earthquakes of that magnitude if one should ever strike Mexico City again.


    • The building codes and regulations are pretty tight in Mexico these days. My only worry would be how strictly the construction companies stick to them, and how many short cuts they take.

      7.6? Ouch!


  2. Kim G says:

    As someone who grew up in California, we were always taught to NOT leave the building, as we could be hit by falling debris. Instead, we were counseled to climb under tables or desks, or to stand in doorways.

    I’ve lived through many minor earthquakes, but the only major one was the Loma Prieta quake in 1987.

    Hopefully you won’t have to live through a devastating quake. With Mexico City mostly masonry, it’s not a great place to be in a big quake.


    Kim G
    Boston, MA
    Back in Gringolandia


    • That’s kind of interesting. I wonder why the difference in instructions? I can imagine that in the US there is more faith in the building staying upright. Perhaps in Mexico, given the hundreds of buildings that collapsed last time, they decided that it’s better to increase the risk of injury by leaving than risk being in the place when it pancakes. Perhaps the types of earthquakes are different. Tomorrow morning, the city is running a massive drill….and everyone will be leaving their workstations to gather at designated spots outside.

      Course, if this earthquake strikes SF, I probably wouldn’t want to be in the building. Or city.


      • Kim G says:

        Most of the buildings in Northern CA are either wood or steel and glass. There’s little masonry, which of course, is the worst from a seismic standpoint.

        As much as I fantasize about living in some charming colonial building when I go to DF, when the chips are down, I may well chose something built to withstand temblors.


        Kim G
        Boston, MA
        Where we are one of the very few who have earthquake insurance. It was so cheap, and as a former Californian, I couldn’t resist.


      • I’ve been asking more and more people about what to do in an earthquake by the way. All but one, including one of a pharma’s trained responders said that you get out straight away, before it stops.

        The one who was the exception, said no, you stay in the building. He insisted you don’t get under a table, and instead squat beside a supporting wall. But to be honest, he can be a bit strange.

        The responder did become uncertain when I said that in the US they stay inside. Which was a bit worrying!

        But for all that, I still can’t say for certain what the official policy is!

        I suspect earthquake insurance would be prohibitively expensive for me. I simply rely on the building to keep up a good track record – it’s survived the big ones for a few decades now.

        Lots of people tell me they wouldn’t live in a colonial building because of the earthquake threat. On one hand, I look at some of them and the impossible looking angles they’re leaning at, and can’t help but think…one more quake. One more big one, and you’re agonna…

        On the other hand. They’ve been here for hundreds of years and seen them all off so far…


  3. bb says:

    Actually, Kim G is right. In Mexico city, even as a little kid, you are always taught that you should wait till the earthquake is over, and then leave the building. Meanwhile, you should hide under a table or stand under the doorway. The reason is that, while the earthquake is going on, the stairs of the building are obviously moving and shaking thus making them weaker, and the weight of people passing by might make them collapse. After the earthquake is over, you can then check if the stairs are safe to go through or if you should wait for further help.

    However, there is a seismic alarm that registers earthquakes over 6 degrees on the Richter scale and warns the population about them with 60-70 seconds in advance. It is only then when you can leave the building before the earthquake strikes. The alarm can be heard automatically in radio stations and on the tv. I think public buildings like schools, universities, hospitals etc. are connected to it as well. As far as I know, the technology is applied only in Mexico and Japan and has been proven to be rather successful although only a very small percentage of the population has access to it.


    • I have to say that when I say ‘instructions’ I really mean what I see people doing! I am going to have to investigate further!

      There’s big IFE building across the road from me which is fitted with an alarm which we can hear from our house. There have been occasions when it sounds a few minutes after a quake, when there is no quake, or not at all. The 6.3 I mentioned in my post – it did work then just fine. There was a 5.7 last year when it went off after the incident. But I guess it depends on where the epicentre is. The 6.3 was in the Pacific, the 5.5 was much closer in Puebla.


  4. Ok, I’ve done some more investigation, but I don’t have a definitive answer yet. I asked two of my students today what they are told to do in the event of an earthquake. They both answered ‘get the hell out of the building asap’. They work in a bank and a pharma plant, and have official instructions, but they aren’t really definitive as to whether they go when the shaking starts or after it stops. But they both told me that you should leave the building immediately.

    This doesn’t provide a definitive answer, because I’m still not certain whether the ‘leave immediately’ policy is official policy or simply what everyone does. I’m kinda interested now, and want to get to the bottom of this!

    If I’m not being rude by asking, ‘bb’, when were you a kid? Before or after 1985? I ask only because if the answer is ‘before’, then perhaps the ’85 quake lead to a change of policy. I don’t know, it’s just a thought.

    Here’s a rather out of focus but just about legible photo of one of the signs in the pharma with instructions.



    • bb says:

      Not a rude question at all Gary… 🙂

      Actually I was a kid before and after the earthquake ( I was born in 1981) so I guess I can be considered more of a post-’85 generation…

      I am pretty sure it is an official policy to get out of the building after the earthquake is over. I remember being in 3rd-4th grade, and having a small course on seismic safety by the local “Protección Civil” people. Among other rules, they included the infamous “No corro. No grito. No empujo” rule, that was drilled into our heads during all of our school years. They also established safe “meeting points”, away from trees or electric cables (which of course, it was completely unrealistic since the school was surrounded by a bunch of trees and an electric tower). But anyhow, that seemed to be the standard policy during the early 90’s, and as far as I know, children are taught the same things to this day.

      However, as you said, one thing is what you are taught in school, and another is what people actually do when an earthquake strikes. Most people just grab their bags (wrong), run to the stairs (wrong) or even try to take the lift (wrong!!) pushing, screaming, and running all the way down to safety.

      So, as a conclusion, I do think the new building regulations are fine, and the instructions given by Protección Civil are clear and concise. What I don’t trust is some of my fellow chilangos. It may sound mean, but I am afraid they will probably push me down the stairs in their zealous effort to get to the first floor, all while the building is still moving and shaking. Such is life in DF!


      • Seeing as you’re quite a bit younger than me, no it wasn’t rude after all!

        I think the urge to grab a bag if it’s nearby is irresistable, considering the stuff we carry around with us these days. But elevators are a big no no. Funnily enough my student told me his story of ‘stupid’ when he and an amigo caught an elevator from the 30th floor during a quake and got screamed at by security at the bottom. He also confirmed that there is an issue with stairs being weakened if everyone uses them at once.

        The pushing…if peoples reaction to an earthquake is anything like their reaction to the doors of a metro carriage opening, then heaven help us!


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