Trapped on the tarmac, watching Mexico City shake

When the earthquake hit, I was on a moving plane on the runway at Mexico City airport. I felt the plane tilt and sway as if it would crash to the ground. Looking out the window, I saw the entire airport swaying and people fleeing the building in droves.

The significance of the day wasn’t lost on me. Today marks the anniversary of the 1985 Mexico City earthquake, which killed over 5,000 people and was the most destructive in the city’s history. The city has proved resilient and managed to rebuild in its wake, but it will need all the help it can get — in the form of both volunteers and donations — to recover this time around.

When the earthquake eventually stopped after what felt like 30 seconds, my phone lit up. “I saw photos of cracks in the airport. Are you ok?” texted Mexico City photographer Rodrigo Jardón.

Mexico City-based photojournalist Adriana Zehbrauskas, who reports regularly for The New York Times, posted a photo of her office on Facebook showing a room strewn with fallen paintings and books, and one showing her neighbors fleeing down a crumbling stairway. Other friends shared videos of buildings collapsing and pleaded via social media for help for their neighbors who were trapped beneath rubble.

And then I started receiving photos of the damage to the airport and parts of the road in front of the airport where the asphalt had opened up like the jaws of a shark.

Of course, everyone on the plane wanted to find out if their family and friends were safe, but phone and internet service were patchy. To make matters worse, the captain of our plane announced that the airport was closed and all employees had been evacuated. We would have to stay on the runway for several hours.

Cristal López Peña, who was sitting next to me on the plane, is from Mexico City but lives in Florida. Her internet and phone weren’t working initially, and she was terrified for her family. “All my children and brothers and friends live in Mexico City,” she told me, and then minutes later she reported with relief, “Thank God they are ok. My daughter was in the parking garage of a shopping mall, and she was putting on lipstick when the entire structure began to shake.”

López Peña’s children continued to send her videos of the earthquake’s destruction, which we watched together — videos of buildings that collapsed into piles of dust and rubble, videos taken from a helicopter showing buildings billowing smoke.

Sitting inside the plane with only a view of the tarmac, it felt surreal to see videos of the buildings where friends lived and worked collapsing. Because internet and phone services weren’t working well, I hadn’t heard if all of my friends were safe, and I felt helpless.

I had lived through several smaller earthquakes in Mexico City in 2012 and 2013, and also a 7.1 earthquake while reporting from Tapachula, Mexico in June 2017. However, this was the strongest earthquake I had ever experienced, and I kept seeing the death counts climb as the minutes flew by.

Our captain then announced our plane would depart because the radar system needed for takeoff had been repaired. As our plane took off, I looked down on the city from the safety of the air, and realized that this city — my adopted city — will need all the volunteers and goodwill it can get.

The road to recovery has only just begun.

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