Life of a Mex­i­can ‘mole’

Vol­un­teer res­cuers risk own lives to save earth­quake vic­tims

Global Times - - World -

Is­mael Vil­le­gas is on va­ca­tion, but you wouldn’t think that when look­ing at him. He hasn’t show­ered in a week as he’s been sleep­ing a few hours a day on the floor of a strip club, and he spends the rest of his time dig­ging through the rub­ble of a build­ing that col­lapsed dur­ing Mex­ico’s earth­quake last week.

Vil­le­gas is a ‘‘topo’’ – the Span­ish word for ‘‘mole’’ – vol­un­teer res­cuers who tun­nel into the con­crete and steel rub­bles of col­lapsed build­ings to look for sur­vivors and bring them to safety.

The topo’s mis­sion is a tra­di­tion that dates back to an­other earth­quake in 1985 that killed more than 10,000 peo­ple and flat­tened hun­dreds of build­ings in Mex­ico City.

The 1985 earth­quake, which struck on the same day as the one 10 days ago, Septem­ber 19, over­whelmed the govern­ment’s emer­gency ser­vices, leav­ing civil­ian vol­un­teers to fill the void.

Vil­le­gas, who was 14 at the time, re­mem­bers watch­ing in fas­ci­na­tion as scrappy young men and women tun­neled into the abyss to pull out trapped sur­vivors.

Those orig­i­nal moles de­vel­oped an ef­fi­cient new tech­nique for ex­tract­ing peo­ple from col­lapsed build­ings.

It in­volves crawl­ing into the cav­i­ties left by the col­lapse, then tun­nel­ing hor­i­zon­tally through the wreck­age floor by floor, look­ing for air pock­ets where peo­ple may be alive. It is faster and less ex­pen­sive – but

far more dan­ger­ous – than the stan­dard in­ter­na­tional tech­nique, which in­volves work­ing down ver­ti­cally through a col­lapsed build­ing, one sec­tion at a time, paus­ing reg­u­larly to en­sure the struc­ture re­mains sta­ble.

“Our tech­nique is to dig tun­nels. That’s why they call us moles, be­cause we dig tun­nels, some­times with noth­ing but our hands,” said Vil­le­gas, wear­ing a hel­met strapped with pro­tec­tive gog­gles and a head­lamp.

Strip club

When last Tues­day’s earth­quake shook Mex­ico City, Vil­le­gas was 700 kilo­me­ters away, in the south­ern state of Oax­aca, help­ing clean up dam­age caused by an ear­lier quake on Septem­ber 7.

As soon as the ground stopped shak­ing, he jumped in his car and rushed back to Mex­ico City, where re­ports were al­ready emerg­ing of col­lapsed build­ings with peo­ple trapped in­side.

“I drove as fast as I could. It was a 10-hour drive. I got here at two in the morn­ing and jumped straight into the rub­ble. My team and I man­aged to get seven sur­vivors out,” he said.

Vil­le­gas has not budged since from this pan­caked seven-story of­fice build­ing on Al­varo Obre­gon Av­enue in the trendy Roma district, one of the worst scenes of de­struc­tion in a dis­as­ter that has killed more than 330 peo­ple.

“We’re stay­ing nearby, in a strip club. There’s a pole and a bar and all the stuff the girls use and ev­ery­thing,” he told AFP. “They in­vited us in. They’re letting

us use their bath­rooms and sleep on the floor.”

Layer cake

Vil­le­gas es­ti­mates there are about 200 moles in Mex­ico.

They are, by def­i­ni­tion, vol­un­teers. When a ma­jor earth­quake strikes – not just in Mex­ico, but around the world – they take time off from work and rush to the dis­as­ter zone.

In his day job, Vil­le­gas, 46, is an elec­tri­cian on the Mex­ico City sub­way. But be­ing a mole, he says, is all­con­sum­ing.

“I’m not mar­ried and I don’t have chil­dren. I think it must be be­cause I’m al­ways rush­ing off to dis­as­ters, be­cause I don’t think I’m that bad­look­ing!”

It is dan­ger­ous too

One mis­step in a col­lapsed build­ing and you can end up at the bot­tom of a chasm. One shift in the pre­car­i­ous struc­ture and you can get crushed.

“It’s like a layer cake with dif­fer­ent lev­els. All of a sud­den, some­one pulls out the base and six lev­els of cake col­lapse into one and a half,” said Luis Gar­cia, 43, a lawyer and mole.

“It’s a sea of ce­ment, re­bar, metal, rub­ble and liq­uids. You feel des­per­ate in there.”

Pola Diaz Mof­fitt, who works along­side Vil­le­gas in an as­so­ci­a­tion called the Adren­a­line Star Moles, started do­ing this back in 1985.

She said fear grips her when she first ven­tures into the rub­ble, even to this day.

“At first your legs trem­ble, and then you get it un­der con­trol. It’s a place where ev­ery­thing is mov­ing,” she said.

Diaz, a 53-year-old so­cial worker, es­ti­mates that she has helped save some 25 lives in her ca­reer.

Never give up

There is lit­tle hope of find­ing more sur­vivors of the 7.1-mag­ni­tude quake.

When the Al­varo Obre­gon build­ing crum­pled into a tan­gled heap of con­crete and steel, there were 132 peo­ple in­side.

Twenty-nine were res­cued alive in the first few days, and 69 across the city.

But since late Fri­day, only bod­ies have been re­cov­ered from the 39 build­ings that col­lapsed.

The moles, how­ever, refuse to give up – even af­ter more than a week of hard work and next to no sleep.

“We’ve res­cued sur­vivors from the rub­ble af­ter a week, even more,” said Vil­le­gas.

Pho­tos: AFP

Res­cuers re­lent­lessly dig for sur­vivors still un­der the rub­ble from a build­ing top­pled by the 7.1-mag­ni­tude quake that struck cen­tral Mex­ico on Septem­ber 19, in Mex­ico City on Tues­day. Top: Is­mael Vil­le­gas

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