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Photo: Natacha Pisarenko/AP Photo

Volunteer rescuer Rodrigo Heredia copes with the highs and lows of triumph and failure in Mexico City.

“C’mon, Pau!”

The voice on the video cries out as Paulina Gomez is shown being hoisted up a narrow shaft, out of the rubble of what used to be a six-story office building in Mexico City. On September 19, when a 7.1 earthquake caused the concrete floors to pancake, Gomez and more than four dozen others were trapped inside.

A crew of a dozen or so men are gathered around the hole, anxiously watching Gomez’s ascent. They’ve spent the last few hours carefully drilling through slabs of concrete two feet thick and slithering through crevices barely more than a foot high in search of signs of life.

“Bravo, Pau!says the voice behind the camera, louder this time, and wilder. The onlookers break into applause as Gomez, after 36 hours under the wreckage, is lifted the last few inches to safety.

The man holding the cell-phone camera turns the lens on himself.

“We did it,” he says, his eyes bloodshot and his distinctive beard caked with dust and debris. He lets out a sigh like a punch in the gut and turns the camera away just before the tears come.

As a volunteer member of an emergency response brigade, Rodrigo Heredia only meant for the video to be shared with his family and friends, documenting one of the few bright spots in a week marked by fear and devastation. Within a week of uploading the two-minute clip, however, it had registered nearly 12 million views, and Heredia and his beard had become a symbol of Mexican solidarity.

More than 40 buildings collapsed the day of the quake, including a primary school, a textile factory and a multifamily housing complex, and hundreds more will have to be demolished. Heredia’s crew was just one of many civilian volunteer brigades and other first responders who showed up to rescue people trapped beneath the crumpled buildings. In a country whose citizens have been trained to expect little of their government, this catastrophe saw thousands of ordinary people risking their lives to do extraordinary things.

“These are the only ones I’d trust with my life!” reads one of the hundreds of comments on the video. “True Mexican heroes don’t wear a cape,” reads another.

Posted by Rod Ch on Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Just hours after Mexico City’s wobbly lakesoil stopped convulsing, Heredia—a 35-year-old father of two young daughters—was standing atop what was left of the building where Paulina Gomez worked. The edifice also housed an accounting firm, something that struck close to home for Heredia, who by day works as an accountant only a short distance away from the collapse. He recognized the green-hued papers strewn around the wreckage for what they were: book-keeping documents.

“That was hard,” says Heredia, who started training as a rescue worker five years ago. “For some people it was like, ‘Eh, they’re just papers.’ But for me it was difficult to realize that these are colleagues. Fellow accountants are in there. I felt a responsibility.”

Even more emotional is the fact that Heredia’s wife is also an accountant, and also named Paulina.

“I just wanted to make a record for myself, of what I was feeling and experiencing up there,” he says. “But social networks are a monster and now it’s gone out of control.”

After Gomez was rescued, two more people were pulled up through the same shaft, and  Heredia spent the next week following his team from one disaster zone to the next, hoping to rescue more survivors. When he wasn’t working on the brigade, he was directing his motorcycle club, Sangre de Dragon, to deliver aid to sites around the city, since bikes can navigate the traffic-clogged streets more efficiently than cars.

 

A man is rescued from a collapsed building in the Condesa neighborhood of Mexico City after the 7.1 magnitude earthquake on September 19 in Mexico. The tremor killed more than 100 people. Pablo Ramos/AP Photo

Meanwhile, the Reforma newspaper ran a political cartoon showing Heredia amid the wreckage as the president and mayor cower in fear behind him. The message was clear: the true heroes in this tragedy were the everyday citizens who stepped up where the government failed.

For days, officials kept the media at a distance and released updates in drips and drops. With information scarce, Heredia’s video was the glimmer of hope that Mexico City needed. But as much as the footage may have lifted spirits, Heredia acknowledges that such work has a much darker side, when what’s being recovered from the rubble is no longer a life but a body.

“To know that this is somebody’s son or daughter, somebody’s partner, that someone out there is waiting for them, hoping that they’ll be rescued, but you didn’t get there in time,” he says. “It shatters you.”

Now, more than a week after the quake, Heredia is back at work, juggling numbers and spreadsheets, and coordinating earthquake relief efforts during his breaks. He now has a bigger platform—more than 100,000 Facebook followers—that he hopes to use to ensure people don’t forget about the victims’ ongoing needs as the earthquake recedes from memory.

He stresses that what he did is not unique, considering the thousands if not millions of ordinary Mexicans who came together to help out.

“The famous tamaleros who ride around Mexico City on tricycles selling their tamales—so many of them have come around in the mornings and donated all their product (to the rescuers),” he says. “There’s no difference between that and what we did, because that person is also doing everything in their capacity to give, even if they don’t know how they’re going to feed their family tomorrow.”

For him and his crew, the decision to head into the wreckage was automatic.

“If you have the ability to help, you can’t stay on the sidelines,” says Heredia. “Because tomorrow it could be you in that situation.”