On This Day: The devastating earthquake Mexico's government tried to keep quiet

·3-min read

On this day in 1985 a devastating earthquake hit Mexico City, leaving thousands dead. 

Yet in the days after the 19 September quake, it was as if the earthquake never happened as the government of the time focused on saving face.

Despite 5,000 people dying and 100,000 homes being left destroyed, a media blackout saw the death toll downplayed and a rejection of aid from the international community, despite struggling to provide emergency services.

The rubble of Hotel Regis in Mexico City.
The earthquake on 19 September 1985 killed thousands of people and destroyed hundreds of thousands of homes. Source: Reuters

The response by the ruling party of the time, the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI), and president Miguel de la Madrid, conveyed what many saw as an ongoing disregard for the poor in Mexico.

The earthquake, which actually happened some 220 miles from Mexico City, started in the Pacific Ocean.

Its shockwaves hit the coast of Mexico at 7.17am on 19 September, 1985, then Mexico City itself two minutes later.

The rubble of Hotel Regis in Mexico City's central Alameda park square
The government at the time intially imposed a media blackout, despite the devastation. Source: Reuters

This article was written as part of Yahoo's 'On This Day' series

Parts of the city shook for over three minutes and the initial shock killed at least 5,000 people.

The earthquake measured as high as 8.0 on the Richter Scale, followed by two aftershocks – one on 20 September measuring 7.5 and another as long as seven months later in April 1986 measuring 7.0.

While the aftershocks occurred later on, and off the coast, they continued to wreak havoc on the city due to their magnitude and the geology of the area. 

People look at the damaged Hotel De Carlo in Revolution Plaza in Mexico City
The earthquake happened 220 miles away in the Pacific Ocean but devastated Mexico City. Source: Reuters

According to reports, the energy released during the main earthquake was equivalent to around 1,114 nuclear weapons exploding, and the shock was felt as far away as Los Angeles and Houston.

As well as killing thousands of people, with many left buried under rubble, the quake destroyed 100,000 houses, leaving millions of people without electricity or water.

File photo shows a building in Mexico City collapsing during earthquake and same location on September 19, 2005.
Much of Mexico City was rebuilt following the earthquake in 1985 - including this building in Alameda park square, pictured here in 1985 and 2005. Source: Reuters

Historic buildings in the heart of the city were destroyed, including museums, monuments and cathedrals, as well as vital infrastructure like hospitals - with one of the most acutely hit areas where the highest concentration of hospitals were.

The government initially refused any foreign aid, but changed its mind following the 20 September after shock. 

Some countries sent help, while US first lady Nancy Reagan toured Mexico City with US ambassador to Mexico, John Gavin.

Much of the city was rebuilt in the ensuing years following the devastating quake, and an early-warning alert system was set up to warn of future earthquakes. 

Members of the Mexican rescue team running
Members of the Mexican rescue team known as the Topos take part in an earthquake evacuation drill in Mexico City in 2015. The drill was set to mark the 30th anniversary of the devastating 1985 quake. Source: Reuters

Mexico also created a Civil Protection Committee was created to train rescue workers, police, hospital staff and others, while evacuation drills are also carried out in public buildings.

However, much of the rebuilding work has taken place in the centre of Mexico City and there remains a dispute over how many people actually died in the 1985 quake - with some estimates as high as 30,000 people, though many put the figure at around 10,000. 

And despite efforts to protect people, millions of people still live in high-risk areas in terms of any future earthquakes.

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