Professional rescuers warned of chaos in the dangerous rubble piles, saying blundering volunteers could cause further collapse in unstable structures.
“You don’t save lives with your heart, you save them with organization,” said rescue worker Juan Carlos Gutierrez, his voice rising almost to a shout.
So far the volunteers, helping professional rescue workers, have dragged more than 100 people out of the ruins left by the September 19 quake that caused widespread destruction across Mexico City.
But, seeing the risks they pose, a dozen groups of so-called “moles” — as the diggers who burrow their way into collapsed buildings are known — organized courses for would-be volunteers.
These cover everything from how to master their emotions to the rapid extraction of people and the removal of valuables from the ruins.
– ‘Everyone wants to be a hero’ –
The enthusiastic volunteers, ranging in age from the very old to the very young, start their free, eight-hour course with the basics.
“So, how fast should we be walking?” Gutierrez asked his class as they began their course under the hot sun.
“At 120 paces a minute, or 130 paces a minute if we are told to speed up,” said one of the volunteers, notebook in hand.
Gutierrez, a short, heavyset man, intoned in a quasi-military tone: “There’s no point running!”
Other instructors reminded recruits that despite completing the course, their task will not be to lift debris or take people out of the ruins, tasks that demand a higher level of training.
“One of our volunteers said he had experience and then rappelled down a rope and started hitting a wall with a mallet, it was a disaster,” said Brandon Cid, one of the trainers at the Parque Bicentenario, which saw 650 people take part in the first day, with another 400 on the waiting list.
“Be careful! Instead of helping, we can become part of the problem,” the instructors kept reminding volunteers.
“Everyone wants to be a hero in a situation like this and that’s not good,” said Dia Ordaz, a volunteer who had signed up for a class.
Ordaz, a 36-year-old teacher, said there were multiple hazards in the work, including “gas leaks, haywire traffic, clashes between people.”
With tears in his eyes, he recalled the “marvel” of so many volunteers showing up by foot or on motorbike not only in the rubble piles but also to distribute aid to victims on foot, or by bicycle and motorbike.
“Yes, it is frightening, but when they say there is someone in the rubble, it’s impressive to see how thousands of people can show up to help one person, no matter who it is,” he said.
– Not everyone helps –
In the minutes immediately after the quake, hundreds of people formed human chains to remove, stone by stone, fallen walls, staircases and roofs.
“Unfortunately not everyone helped” and “we saw the risks that were created, and people had to learn that you can’t help simply with your heart,” Gutierrez told AFP.
“We already have lives at risk and people in danger, and we can’t have any more added to that,” said the rescue worker who had also pulled people from the ruins during the even more devastating earthquake that rocked Mexico City on the same day, September 19, 1985.
He also helped rescue efforts in the quake that hit Oaxaca and Chiapas in the southeast of the country on September 7.
As of Wednesday, most of the rescue workers had been placed under the supervision of the Mexican Marines, but there were also experts deployed from Israel, the United States, Japan, Spain and Germany, as well as other countries.