MEXICO CITY — They arrived alone, in pairs or in groups. Some brought supplies others might need: water, blankets, medicine, tools. Others came with nothing more than able hands and a sense of purpose.
And as midnight neared on Tuesday — hours after a powerful, deadly earthquake struck central Mexico — Parque España, the verdant refuge of dog-walkers and young lovers in the Condesa neighborhood of the capital, had become the venue for something else: a frenetic, impromptu relief center, where hundreds of volunteers, under the leadership of nobody in particular, had created an emergency distribution point for food and supplies.
“It’s very characteristic of the Mexican people: We stand together,” said Christian Piñeiro, 21, a medical student, who was helping a team of doctors hand out medication. Behind him, in the darkness, supplies were being frantically passed along bucket lines of volunteers that snaked from one side of the park to the other.
“Independent of the fact that there are gangs and crime,” Mr. Piñeiro continued, “the people unify against adversity.”
The earthquake killed more than 200 people in several states, flattened dozens of buildings in Mexico City alone and damaged thousands of others. Among the dead were more than two-dozen school children. The quake, which came two weeks after another devastating temblor off the country’s southern coast, was centered about 100 miles from the capital and was followed by at least 11 aftershocks.
Millions of people were left without electricity, and President Enrique Peña Nieto said emergency workers were being sent to affected areas.
Throughout much of Mexico City on Tuesday, nightfall brought an eerie quietude, as businesses closed early and people sought the succor of their families at home. But in the hardest hit neighborhoods, the landscape was different: blocks cast in darkness from power failures were punctuated by nodes of intense activity.
On another block in Condesa, a traffic circle had been converted into a small, noisy redistribution point. Trucks, cars, motorcycles arrived, a couple every minute, to drop off supplies, which were sorted, repackaged and sent back out into the city.
Many of the volunteers were from the surrounding blocks, while others had traveled from farther away. It was a scrum of hustle and loud voices; the energy belied the hour but underscored the urgency.
“We’re neighbors,” said Magdalena Camarillo, 27, an internet technology programmer, who was helping to receive and load packages.
It was as though the collective memory of the devastating 1985 earthquake seemed to animate the city: Back then, the authorities failed to act quickly and citizens took the lead in what is now considered the birth of civil society in Mexico.
“This is what I did 30 years ago, because it’s a way I know I can help,” said Marta García as she handed coffee and snacks to police officers, paramedics, volunteers and passers-by near a collapsed residential building in the Del Valle neighborhood.
The federal and local governments reacted much faster this time around, but as midnight neared, there was still a considerable sense of improvisation.
People milling near several affected sites in Del Valle were unsure where to leave the donated water, food, blankets and first aid kits. Officials, overwhelmed by the number of Mexicans trying to help, redirected them to other zones.
“Right now there really aren’t any instructions from the top down or anything,” said Monica Valerio, a teacher and the member of a cycling group that coordinated a rubble-clearing crew on social media. “There are more pairs of hands that we know what to do with, which is amazing, but we also need to find order among the mess to help more efficiently.”
On a grassy avenue in Condesa, hundreds more gathered in an effort to help clear the rubble of a collapsed eight-story apartment building. Under the glare of portable floodlights, in air thick with dust, the volunteers had formed long lines to pass five-gallon buckets full of crumbled concrete, twisted metal and splintered wood to waiting dump trucks.
Sirens whooped in the distance then faded. From time to time, a scrum of rescue workers in jumpsuits and hard hats would stride out of the darkness, moving briskly, then circumnavigate a cat’s-cradle of police tape and disappear around a corner.
In an Art Deco house on Laredo Street in Condesa that normally serves as an office building, an informal command center had been set up for the families of those trapped under the rubble of a building across the street.
Doctors and psychologists waited on call as relatives made their way inside to ask for information. Outside volunteers gathered medicine and water.
Mony de Swaan, a resident who was coordinating the center by the light of cellphones, said that as many as seven people remained trapped. With the help of the building’s doorman who had escaped, he had made a list of residents in the seven-story building.
A young woman approached the table. “My mother’s name is Mari,” she told Mr. de Swaan. “On the second floor.”
He answered her gently. “She is still inside,” he said. “On the second floor, Mari, Lorna and Consuelo are still inside.”
The missing woman, María Ignacia Cruz, had traveled every day from her home in a poor suburb to look after an elderly lady, said Ms. Cruz’s husband, Alberto Arrellano Nicolas, sitting almost mute with worry. His adult daughter and son sat on a sofa, talking quietly with a psychologist as they tried to hold back their tears.
On a darkened street in the Roma Norte neighborhood, away from the commotion of relief efforts, a group of neighbors gathered on the street, sitting on chairs and blankets. The authorities had barred them from returning home because their apartment building adjoined a damaged one, putting both structures at risk.
Others in the city, however, were simply too unnerved to return home, out of fear of aftershocks or hidden damage, choosing instead to seek shelter with relatives and friends elsewhere.
The earthquake terrified Silvia Bustamante, 65, too, but she was unwilling to abandon the apartment she has called home for 40 years. So she came up with a compromise: She pitched a tent in the lobby, a few feet from the sidewalk.
“We’re traumatized,” Ms. Bustamante said as she stood outside her building, watching the traffic of relief workers. “I dread the thought of being upstairs and not being able to get down in time.”
Her block lay in darkness. The lights of skyscrapers on the city’s main Reforma Avenue less than a mile away seemed a very distant reminder of normalcy.
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