Denver7 journalist recounts Mexico earthquake first-hand; fund set up for Denver's sister city

DENVER – A Denver7 journalist is seeing the devastation of the aftermath of the latest earthquake to hit Mexico firsthand, and the city of Denver is setting up a relief fund to help its sister city of Cuernavaca, which was also hit hard by Tuesday’s earthquake.

More than 220 people are confirmed dead in Mexico after the 7.1-magnitude earthquake hit Tuesday, and scores more are missing. Officials say the death toll is likely to rise.

Denver7 digital journalist Oscar Contreras was visiting family on vacation in Mexico Tuesday when the earthquake struck. He was in Acapulco inside a store at the time it hit—about 130 miles away from the epicenter.

“It felt like a vibration, but I was moving on the ground. I started hearing the rattling of metal, like a slow crashing of metal. The city of Acapulco said, ‘There’s an earthquake, there’s an earthquake.’ At that time, my aunt grabbed me by the arm and pulled me, and we started getting out of the store,” Contreras said. “I just knew we had to get out…We got out into the middle of the street and we just waited it out.”

Contreras and his family then drove back into southern Mexico City, where much of the family lives. Contreras says what was normally a five-hour drive took 10 hours because of a highway collapse in Cuernavaca.

"As soon as we got here, we realized how chaotic it really was," Contreras said. "Mexico is like a, you would say a Paris, France. It's very lit. There's a lot of light, but when we got here, when we drove, the streets were dark. Sections of the whole city were turned off, Traffic lights were not working and that's very dangerous because Mexico City roads are very poorly maintained."

He is staying in the Coyoacan borough of Mexico City—not far from the school where more than 20 children were found dead after the earthquake.

Contreras says other family members living in the northern part of the city, closer to the quake’s epicenter, didn’t hear the seismic warning alarms and had little time to prepare, which he says may have led to more.

"The thing about Mexico is that it has a seismic alarm system—so like a really loud sound, like an ambulance sound will sound a minute before an earthquake is actually felt,” Contreras said. “But because this earthquake was very close to the city, the alarm never went off. So people didn't have a chance to evacuate and that's why there has been an increasing number of deaths."

"My father's wife has a lot of family, a lot of sisters who were near the area where it was hardest hit in the northern part of Mexico City,” Contreras continued. “They were telling her, I was inside, I was in school, I was teaching class and then suddenly without warning the earth started shaking really violently. . . .People didn’t really have time to properly react and get out of the buildings in time.”

The earthquake struck 32 years to the day of a massive earthquake that is estimated to have killed between 5,000 and 10,000 people in Mexico City.

Contreras says the response from Mexican people was overwhelming.

"I was very surprised by the solidarity of the Mexican people, because as we drove into the city at night, [we were] hearing on the radio local media asking for all these medical kits. As we were driving towards home here, there was a lot of motorcycles and trucks who weren't first responders who were carrying shovels, who were carrying first aid kits, who were carrying buckets of water,” Contreras said. “It really does show you how the people have come together. I was more surprised and amazed by the response.”

But he says the recovery effort and search-and-rescue efforts remain ongoing.

“There have been several building collapses near where I live, including an elementary school where at least 20 kids have died,” Contreras said. “People are still asking for help. What you’ll see later in the day is more people going in to help.”

But he says his family was mostly lucky and didn’t suffer extreme damage.

“Nothing major. There were no cracks, there was no loss of life here in the area, as far as I can tell. House plants we have in the garage tipped over and broke. One of our furniture pieces moved to the middle of the living room,” he said. “A lot of these houses have been built to code after that 1985 earthquake, so they’re very resilient homes and it’s very hard for them to come down.”

The Consulate General of Mexico in Denver said the current focus is on rescuing people ad helping those affected by the earthquake. More information will come after the “critical stage of emergency is overcome,” the consulate general said.

For information regarding U.S. citizens in Mexico City, you can call 202-501-4444. The Consulate General in Denver can be reached for emergencies at 303-667-8657.

Denver Sister Cities, the nonprofit that oversees the global sister city partnership program like the one between Denver and Cuernavaca, is setting up a special relief fund that will go entirely to Cuernavaca and will be tax-deductible. Denver and Cuernavaca have been sister cities since 1984. For more information on the fund, click here. To donate to the fund, click here.

Denver Mayor Michael Hancock released a statement about the earthquake Wednesday:

“Our hearts are breaking for the residents of Central Mexico as they dig out from yesterday’s quake. To be struck again by tragedy on the sad anniversary of the one that caused so much agony 32 years earlier is a great deal for a people to bear. We want friends, neighbors, business partners and relatives of so many who call Denver home to know that we stand with them.  We are grateful that once again the Denver community is rallying to provide support and encourage residents to open their hearts and wallets to those in need.”

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