Mexico on Wednesday commemorated victims of two deadly Sept. 19 earthquakes, one in 1985 that left at least 9,500 dead and another just last year that killed more than 360.
Victims’ relatives gathered at the site of a seven-story downtown office building that collapsed in last year’s magnitude 7.1 quake that killed 228 people in the capital and 141 more in nearby states.
The rubble was long ago cleared, but the building site remained blocked off with plywood. Friends and family of the 49 victims had posted signs with messages of love on the fencing.
One included a photo of a young man named Adrian wearing black-framed glasses. The message promised Adrian some pizzas at a popular restaurant across the street. “We miss you and you will always live in our hearts,” the sign said.
Rescuers in hard hats who responded to the emergency that day appeared with their gear.
Several women wearing black shirts that said “I love you Kari” lit candles and floral wreaths were laid along the sidewalk. A priest dressed in black embraced a woman who sobbed into his embroidered shawl.
Consuelo de Luna, whose son died in the collapse, said “it’s difficult.”
The city purchased the lot with plans for a permanent memorial, but it has not moved forward. The civic group Mexicans Against Corruption released an investigation this month that revealed that government experts had deemed the office building so unsafe in 1997 that they warned a government agency not to rent offices there. Nothing was done to make the building safe or warn other tenants.
Javier Martin Serrano, 55, who collects and sells scrap metal and lives as a squatter a block away returned Wednesday to the site of a collapsed five-story office and factory.
He had on the same threadbare pants and green nylon safety vest he wore when he went into the rubble that day to save a trapped woman.
“More than anything today I feel melancholy, helplessness for not having been able to save more people,” he said.
Rail thin, Serrano was able to squeeze through holes and crawl into the collapsed structure until he reached one of the businessmen who worked there, crushed and trapped under a concrete floor slab.
“He complained a lot, he didn’t let go of my hand until he died,” Serrano said.
Serrano had to drag himself out, losing his way in the choking dust. On Wednesday, he ran his hand over a marble floor molding that marked the edge of the building’s parking lot. “This is what guided me,” he said.
He was trapped when a concrete beam settled on him. A year later the government has not helped him with his injuries or offered alternative housing to squatters evicted from the lot where he lives.
Remembrances were held at other disaster sites across the city as well, including the Enrique Rebsamen elementary school where 37 people died, many of them children.
At 1:14 p.m. people observed a moment of silence, holding their arms aloft, before the quake alarm sounded and a primary school next door evacuated in a drill. Afterward, victims’ relatives recited some of their names, with tears streaming down their faces.
“We miss you a lot,” said Arturo Gomez, weeping with his arm raised, to his wife of 39 years, Maria Elena Sanchez Lira, who died in the quake. Her brother, Fernando Sanchez Lira, 51, said he also lost his mother Maria Teresa Lira, in the collapse.
He quit his job to pursue a lawsuit against the building’s owner. “This building was really bad. The owner knew it,” he said.
At a collapsed apartment building where nine people died on the south side of the capital, people yelled while the earthquake drill sirens blared: “This drill doesn’t represent us. We don’t want homages, we don’t want monuments, we don’t want drills. We want homes. We want reconstruction.”
Early Wednesday morning, President Enrique Pena Nieto presided over the raising of a massive Mexican flag to mark the anniversary of the shattering magnitude 8.0 quake of 1985.
Associated Press writer Maria Verza contributed to this report.