The Quake That Shook Strong Character Into Sight

Until my 30s, I lived on granite and took the solidity of my physical existence for granted. Below 96th Street, Manhattan has a granite base that permits the creation of tall buildings and smug attitudes. When I was living on the 10th floor of a rock-solid New York apartment building, safety from nature was never a concern.

Earthquakes were exotic occurrences happening far away and occasionally given a few inches in The New York Times. They were irrelevant to my insulated life.

That changed in January 1972 when our little family moved to Guadalajara, Mexico, for what was supposed to be a year's sabbatical and has turned into 24 years of accommodation and now assimilation into the vibrant society that many Americans visit and few get to know.

For those who live in the seismic zones, earthquakes are part of the Mexican experience. There might be only two or three moderately strong ones a year, but their presence in the consciousness of the people is constant.

Everyone remembers his first tremor. I was reading in our Guadalajara living room when the room began to move. While it rose, fell, and went sideways, I was both dumbfounded and scared. At first, I had no idea what was happening - never having been through anything like it before - and then, realizing it was an earthquake, fascination crept into the fear.

My wife, Victoria, a Mexican whom I had met at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics and married three months later, came down smiling. ''Did you feel that little one?'' she asked, unperturbed. What a question. Seeing that I had remained transfixed in my chair, she instructed me on current earthquake etiquette: The safest places are under a doorway or a strong table.

In 1973, Victoria got into television, and in 1976 we moved to Mexico City where she started co-anchoring the late-night national network news.

A little more than two years later, on a Friday evening, I was in the control room when she was on the air and a bigger one hit. It measured 7.8. I witnessed the panic that overcame the young program director, but was reassured when the experienced switcher remained calm and in control. Although the director had wanted to evacuate the building, he was overruled, and the news continued, providing a valuable public service in calming the citizenry.

But that earthquake paled beside the big one. I remember it as clearly as I remember where I was when someone told me President Kennedy had been shot.

Victoria had moved to the morning news, and on Sept. 19, 1985, we followed our usual ritual: We got up at 4:30 a.m., and I made breakfast while Victoria put on her makeup. At 6 on the dot we started the eight-minute drive to the studios of Televisa. I returned to the apartment, showered, dressed, turned on Channel 2 at 7, taped Victoria's first three items, and left to drive to the office.

It was 7:19, the car was on the street, and as I reached to put my key in the door, I heard a creaking and looked up to see a telephone pole swaying back and forth. I ran across the street to a park and watched the ground and our small five-story apartment building undulate up and down.

The earth didn't just shake, it moved hard and long. Nearby, long-buried trolley tracks broke and sprouted above the surface of the pavement.

A poor old woman dressed in black and gray fell at my knees and grasped my legs, praying. She might have been through a hundred earthquakes before, but never one like this.

Later I learned that no place except Chile has suffered a quake measuring a magnitude of 8 or more (at least not since earthquakes have been recorded). This was an 8.1 - four times stronger than the earlier 7.8, since each increment of one whole number represents a 10-fold increase in an earthquake's magnitude.

The minute or so that it lasted seemed long because the others had been much shorter. I lifted the woman to her feet and assured her that nothing bad had happened. She thanked me, blessed me, and wandered off in a daze.

I rushed to Televisa, running the last half-mile when rubble blocked the car. One of the three huge antennas, the one on the news building, was down. It had oscillated back and forth before crashing across one of Mexico City's busiest avenues. When it fell, the news blacked out.

Later, tapes would show Victoria and her co-anchor sitting calmly at the desk. Only when I got to work did I learn that Victoria, helped by a courageous technician, had made a perilous escape from the half-destroyed building and had walked several blocks to Televisa's main radio station to continue broadcasting.

In the aftermath of the earthquake, Mexicans of all classes spontaneously joined together to form action groups. As is usual in such cases, students led the way in clearing the debris and hunting for survivors. I don't remember hearing of a single case of looting.

What I have found is that with the suddenness of an earthquake, no one has time to reason and, therefore, the raw essence of human nature is immediately on display: Some panic, others remain calm; some show cowardice, while others manifest heroism.

Fortunately, a crisis usually brings out the best; most exhibit the noblest virtues of humanity.

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