When buildings crumble, these rescue 'moles' tunnel in to survivors

Pola Díaz Moffitt first pitched in to search-and-rescue efforts after Mexico City's 1985 earthquake, 32 years to the day before last month's temblor. She's been helping 'topos' groups find people trapped by disasters ever since.

Whitney Eulich
Pola Moffit stands in front of an office building that collapsed in Mexico City's Roma neighborhood during the 7.1 earthquake on Sept. 19. She is part of a team of roughly 10 civilian rescuers, known as Topos, or Moles, who worked at this site for 15 days straight, digging into the rubble, crawling into the building ruins, and trying to rescue quake victims. Ms. Moffit got her start doing this volunteer rescue work on the same day in 1985, when an 8.0 quake rocked Mexico City, killing thousands.

When Pola Díaz Moffitt walks into the wood-paneled seafood restaurant here on a recent afternoon, everyone on staff pauses to greet her.

It’s not the typical reception someone gets when they’ve been popping into the same restaurant for a week, solely to use its bathroom, but this isn’t a typical moment in Mexico City.

Ms. Moffitt, donning a white medical mask around her neck, black plastic elbow and knee pads over her clothes, and a walkie-talkie poking out from her shirt collar, has been working in volunteer search and rescue for eight days straight across the street at Álvaro Obregón 286. The seven-story office building crumbled to the ground on Sept. 19 amid a 7.1 earthquake, trapping scores of people. It’s one of nearly 40 buildings that flattened across the city, killing an estimated 228 people.

Moffitt is a topo, or mole, a term for the citizen rescuers that burrow deep into rubble to search for victims. She and nine other members of the Topos Adrenalina group arrived on the scene here 40 minutes after the earth stopped thrashing last month, and remained until Oct. 4, when the final known victim’s body was removed from the debris.

Those 15 days, though emotionally and physically grueling, are what she lives for – a purpose she discovered exactly 32 years ago to the day, when Mexico suffered its most famous quake. The 1985 8.0 temblor left thousands dead and hundreds of buildings crushed to the ground, leading to the creation of most topos groups. Since then, Moffitt, one of the first female topos, has traveled to dozens of countries and disasters, ranging from earthquakes in El Salvador and Haiti, and New York City’s Twin Towers following 9/11. 

“In the moment, I just ran to the rubble, I felt pulled toward it,” Moffitt says of climbing onto a fallen building in the city’s center and removing rubble with her bare hands for nearly 48 hours in 1985. She kept searching for 1-1/2 months. But it was the sense of being able to help – and wanting to prepare herself and others to do even more in the future – that drove her to dedicate her life to rescue work. She went on to receive formal paramedic training and gives talks at schools and businesses about being prepared for disaster. 

“I was just 20 years old,” she recalls of her first foray into rescue work, when men looked at her on top the rubble and told her she didn’t belong. “I saw so many people who came from other countries to help. I said to myself, ‘When someone needs my help in the future, I will go.′ ” She followed through one year later, traveling to a deadly quakezone in El Salvador.

“The government doesn’t send us. We pay our own way.... We travel to help and represent Mexico with dignity,” she says.

Into the rubble

Topos aren’t your typical search and rescue crews. Most groups were founded in 1985, when citizens responded using their instincts and adrenaline rather than high-tech tools. In the years since, members have had formal training but still shy away from things like heat sensors, instead searching for tunnels created when the structure fell.

“People enter the rubble like little fish. They are swimming, moving themselves through paths we’ve found or created,” Moffitt says, slowly wiggling her body to show how she might use her shoulders, knees, and elbows to shimmy through a tight space, as deep as 100 feet. The teams are skilled in recognizing where wreckage can safely be moved without shifting the entire collapse site, which could put buried survivors at more risk.

“When you’re inside a tunnel, you search with your ears, with your voice,” calling for anyone who can hear to knock three times, she says. “Your hearing becomes very concentrated. You isolate all the outside noises so you can determine what you’re hearing: someone breathing softly, a groan, any sign of life.” 

It’s overcast and rainy on the morning of Sept. 27, a week after the quake and midway through the search. Topos aren’t the only ones involved at this point, with foreign volunteers and Mexican soldiers stand atop the rubble alongside them. Rescuers have moved onto the roof of a nearby building, where they can look down onto the wreckage. The work is slow moving.

Most bystanders are restricted to an area nearly a football field away. For the first few days, even victims’ relatives weren’t able to get much closer – or much information. Government officials weren’t updating families on a regular basis, and, even once there was more communication, about three days post-quake, it was vague. 

“There were families who were spending long days and nights in the rain, waiting for any news about their loved ones, only to learn their child or sibling’s body had been recovered one or two days prior and already taken” to the morgue, says Miguel Ángel Avila Boloñes. The body of his cousin, Erick Martín Acosta Hernández, a 23-year-old working at an accounting firm, was found Sept. 22. The family says an autopsy showed he likely survived beneath the rubble for the first 24 hours after the office building collapsed.

Mr. Avila says his family is frustrated with officials and saddened by their loss. “But the work the [members of] Topos and other groups are doing? We’re so grateful,” he says.

“They are risking their lives to do this complicated work, to save others’ lives. They bring skill and experience to this search,” he says. The civilian response, he adds, has been a silver lining after the quake. “I don’t know if in other countries it’s like this. But many [groups] like the Topos have come out and lifted the people. Mexico isn’t like what you see in the news where everything is bad. Yes, there is bad, but the good [people] far outweigh the bad,” he says. 

By early afternoon, someone on the street below the building passes up a blue tarp to the men and women combing the rubble. Next come several white sheets, brought up in a paint bucket-pulley: telltale signs that a victim has been found. 

Topos together

Any rescue requires teamwork, Moffitt says.“The only time an individual is the sole rescuer is when the victim is sitting above the rubble like a flower, ready to be picked,” she says. “Otherwise, it’s a group effort,” the culmination of hours of moving rubble or scoping out safe paths to tunnel into.

“My motivation is to find one life. That alone keeps me going,” Moffitt says. But being able to return a body to a family “is just as important.” It allows a family to start the long process of grief and “reconstructing their lives.”

Since literally running head-on into this work more than 30 years ago, Moffitt herself has become a mother and a grandmother. And despite the risk, her dedication and drive haven’t faltered.

“I’m hard-headed. I’m persistent, a fighter,” she says. She considers herself lucky to have the support of her family and remembers a point when her three daughters started running to her anytime they saw news of a disaster on TV.

“Do you need to go, Mom? Can we help you pack your bag? Do you want us to look up information for you?” she recalls them asking.

“They grew up with a mom who is not normal,” she says. “But I think they have always understood the importance of this work. Of giving back and helping [people] move ahead.”

The work is exhausting – and it shows. At one point during an interview, Moffitt’s head momentarily dips to her chest. She whips it back up, blinking rapidly. “I’m sorry,” she says. “I disconnected.”

All of the city’s various topos groups are “100 percent volunteer,” Moffitt says. They receive no government support, and most volunteers have day jobs. 

A lot has changed among the topos community since the 1980s. For starters, she says, “I see a lot more young women doing this work.” But there have been other important changes as well. “I feel so much support,” she says. “With all this globalization, it’s no longer just rescuers showing up from Spain, Germany, Israel, the US.

“People are calling us on the phone, setting up [crowdsourcing] fundraisers, sending us messages online,” she says. “It’s incredible. People are taking the time – even if just a few seconds – to show empathy for those who are suffering, and support for others working to save lives.

“All I feel is thanks.”

How to take action

UniversalGiving helps people give to and volunteer for top-performing charitable organizations around the world. All the projects are vetted by UniversalGiving; 100 percent of each donation goes directly to the listed cause. Below are links to three groups providing disaster relief:

Operation USA aids children and families in the wake of natural disasters and other challenges. Take action: Contribute money for the response to hurricane Irma.

Lambi Fund of Haiti aims to strengthen civil society in Haiti. Take action: Donate funds for hurricane Matthew relief.

Partnerships for Trauma Recovery addresses trauma among survivors of human rights abuses through mental health care, clinical training, and policy advocacy. Take action: Support this organization’s global trauma healing center in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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