The 49ers At Benito Juarez Hospital

Thomas Turman

© Copyright 2021 by Thomas Turman

Winner of the  2022 Winners Circle  Open Nonfiction Contest

Photo by André Freitas on Unsplash
                          Photo by André Freitas on Unsplash

On a Bay area evening news program in 2010, a rescue worker, at the top of a pile of concrete rubble that used to be a building, held up a small baby they had just pulled from the wreckage of the building after a Turkish earthquake. The baby was alive and wailing loudly. The worker, his facemask pulled down, was both smiling and crying. He thrust his dirty, crying bundle up into the air for the news cameras as if to say, “see, it isn’t hopeless for us to dig in this rubble.” I was inexplicably crying too, which scared my wife.

I was crying because I knew exactly what he felt. I was having a flashback to 1985. It was probably a Post Traumatic Stress moment for me brought on by a similar scene from the earthquake in Mexico City that year. A PTSD survivor is someone who hopes and pretends to be like everyone else, but isn’t.

Late that September of ‘85, on the way to one of my job sites, I heard a desperate radio call for engineering and medical volunteers to help in Mexico City after the quake, which had measured 8.1 on the Richter scale. As a 48 year-old architect and engineer, I had some experience with building evaluation after such disasters. I got to my project and called to offer my services. Within a day, a group of 46 doctors and nurses, along with me and two other construction types, was one of the first volunteer response teams to the Mexico City earthquake. This effort was initiated and sponsored by the San Francisco division of The Salvation Army. Because were all from the Bay Area, we were immediately dubbed the 49ers.

We landed at the airport at sundown and were taken immediately to the recently constructed Benito Juarez hospital in different vehicles. Our medical team had chosen Benito Juarez because it had made it though the first large quake. We hoped to be able to use its facilities to do their work of immediate medical treatment needed in such a disaster to be coordinated with local medical teams by our 40 medical people. I was to set up a base of operations for building evaluation, search and rescue for me and my small crew.

My crew got to the hospital ahead of the medical group as the light faded to dark. As I stepped out of the van and into the street in front of the hospital, a 7.2 aftershock buckled and curled the pavement beneath me throwing me to my back. As I lay there I watched the 12-story hospital collapse into a smoky, electrically sparking pile of concrete and twisted steel. It took only seconds to come down. We were all covering our faces, but still blinded by the cloud of dust and smoke. A collapse like that produces a tremendous wave of air and noise that drove any sounds we could make down the street. It was deathly quiet. It was as if all the air had been sucked out of the smoky street.

12 stories of patients, doctors and nurses and equipment had just collapsed into a three-story high pile of debris. I rushed passed a stunned guard into what looked like the safe, higher side of the still smoking mountain of material to see if there were any survivors. Two nurses in crisp, white uniforms, their heads and limbs at impossible angles, lay dead next to an upside down, metal hospital table in a small flowerbed. They had been ejected from the crumbling structure.

I could see that the building had torqued or twisted in failing so that the pre-cast, concrete floor beams formed a ‘pick-up-sticks’ pile covered with the glass and gypsum wall board of the interior and exterior walls. On my chosen side, the debris was resting on concrete beams over what looked like 4-foot square openings for an underground parking structure, which was still propping up that side of the pile of failed building. The intimate prurience of seeing inside a failed building is a violation of private lives I couldn’t look away from.

Many of our medical team, who arrived soon after us, were not strangers to shocking displays of death, so they quickly began to gather and organize resident staff who were not in the hospital. I needed to know more about the building, so we all searched for anyone who could tell us about the layout of the hospital. In one of the low outbuildings, we found the director of the hospital complex. He was sitting at his desk, a stethoscope around his neck and staring at a piece of paper in his hands. The paper was upside down. A pair of nurses was gently trying to bring him out of the shock he was so obviously in. He wasn’t responding, so they tenderly led him away.

An older nurse helped me find a building maintenance man, Juan, who showed me the plans and an architecture model for their new 12-story structure. I saw that it was built on a substantial storage-like basement with those 4-foot square vent openings, not a parking structure. Juan and I got big flashlights and I grabbed a stethoscope for listening to the trembling bones of the structure for imminent movement, a trick I’d learned from California’s disaster response training. We headed for the edge of the destruction I’d looked at earlier.

At that edge, we found a group of men trying to expose more of the ground-level openings by clawing away at the debris with their bare hands, throwing and passing the pieces away from the edge of the failed hospital. These men weren’t engineers, but they were obviously angry that this hospital they trusted had failed. Later, I learned that these first Mexican responders were relatives of patients in the hospital. The mound of building looked like demolitions I’d witnessed many times in California, but here there was the silent emptiness of death knitting these pieces together, binding the concrete and steel into a tenuous tombstone.

Juan and I clambered over broken concrete to one of the ominous, black openings at ground level I’d seen on the high side of the pile and lit up the scary void. Immediately, cries came from the back of the dusty space. We dropped into the cavern and immediately found several people alive huddled together under a floor slab of concrete. The post and beam type of construction of this lower basement level had saved them. Redundancy in building structure is a lifesaver. We passed the frightened and bleeding people up through the openings to waiting hands.

We could hear crying and moaning above us, so we knew that people had survived the failure, but were still only at the lowest part of the tenuous, broken skeleton of building parts. Using my stethoscope, I listened for movement above me and not hearing anything shifting, I crawled around and to the lower end of one of the double “T” beams that made up the floors. I could see up the slope that, since the beam had not broken in the collapse, several 2-foot high by 4-foot wide voids would be open to me to gain access to higher parts of the creaking and groaning structure. I could also see that, because the building twisted, the stack of double-“T” beams were tunnels into possible voids in the building where people might still be found alive.

Since my helper, Juan, was over weight, I realized that I would have to be the one to wiggle up these tunnels to explore what was above us. I don’t like tight, unknown spaces, so I had to take several deep breaths before I hoisted my self up into the first tunnel. I tied a long extension cord to my ankle, gave Juan the other end and belly crawled up the first tunnel as I’d been taught in Navy boot camp. I found a dead end and yelled for Juan to “PULL”. He dragged me back down and we went looking for another access to the upper levels.

We found another likely “T” beam and I slithered up again to find that the upper end was hovering over a cavity where three people in thin patient gowns lay in a pile. One was alive. Hanging out of my tunnel as I reached for her hand to pull her up to me, someone grabbed my foot, scaring the hell out of me, and said something in French. It wasn’t Juan. Who ever it was had a bright light, which helped to see better into the hole in front of me. I couldn’t turn around, so I pulled the woman up to me and inched her headfirst in the tight space by me to who ever grabbed my ankle. She disappeared down our tunnel.

Feeling more confident, and continuing to use my stethoscope, I slithered into the void with the two dead patients and climbed up into another tunnel, which seemed to go higher. As I got to the opening of this “T” beam, a helmeted man came out to the end of my first tunnel and said, “I speak English. We have come to help. We are a French mountain rescue team.” All I could do was stare, smile and nod my understanding while holding out my hand, which he grasped firmly. He slipped into the cramped space, checked the bodies and said, “Good idea to use the stethoscope. Is it still moving?”

“No, but another after-shock could be a different story. We have to hurry.” The Frenchman nodded and untied the extension cord from my ankle. He fixed one of his light lines to me with a much better knot than the one I had done.

As I pulled myself into the higher tunnel, a second helmeted rescuer crowded into our staging area and a third poked his head in to see what was going on. There was apparently a whole line of them. They each explored other tunnels. I slithered up my new tunnel as quickly as I could as claustrophobia was beginning to close down on me. I was not feeling good about this close quarter mission and I wanted out of there.

At the top of this second tunnel, I found a very small space, which held a bent up hospital bed with what looked like a curled up patient lying on her side. Her long black hair was spread out over the bundle she was clutching to her. The bundle was a baby who was breastfeeding. I could just reach the mother’s neck to feel that she was dead, but the baby was moving and still sucking. I felt a tap on my boot and the Frenchman passed hi flashlight to me, and the light poured onto the baby’s dirty blanket. Unafraid of these claustrophobic spaces, he had followed right behind me. I pulled the baby away from the mother and it began to cry. I passed the bundle back down to the Frenchman and just lay flat with my arms dangling over the end of the concrete beam, drained and exhausted. The Frenchman retreated and pulled me back down away from the dead mother where he correctly assessed that we could only do this kind of work for short periods of time. We all climbed back out into relatively fresh air and collapsed into silence. The required professionalism of each of us merged in this demanding disaster, but the individuals in us didn’t have time to touch.

The French team and I spent three days in the wreckage and then split up to attend to other problems. I didn’t know what happened to our breastfeeding baby except that the Frenchman said they passed the tot back down the line to one another and finally out to people outside helping move pieces of rubble away from our entry.

It wasn’t until I returned to the Bay Area several days later that I saw the scene that made me cry at witnessing the worker in Turkey some 26 years later. At the Benito Juarez Hospital, a Bay Area Channel 4 news camera crew filmed workers who took the baby from the Frenchmen and passed her up to the top of the pile of rubble to a young man who held her up high for everyone to see, and shouted, “SHE’S ALIVE.”

Epilogue: The young girl we pulled out of the Benito Juarez Hospital is now a nurse at the replacement hospital.


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