The Astor Fire, Part 1: The Gift of Life

Joan (Schiavon) Huesca (1928 – 1987)
Gilbert Huesca (1915 – 2009)
Enrique Huesca (1909 – 2003)
Mercedes (Formento) Huesca (1924 – 2004)
Eduardo Huesca (1947 –  )

I, a North American, have always loved Mexico for her beauty, art, culture, and the friendliness of her people.  I have loved Mexico, too, for she was the birthplace of my Husband, and the loving family into which I had married. Now, I have more reason to love Mexico even more deeply,  for the gift of life given to me by her firemen.

              – Excerpt from letter dated June 14, 1978, from Joan Huesca to the Mexico City   Heroic Corps of Firemen

Introduction:  In the spring of 1978, my father, Gilbert Huesca, sent my mother, Joan Huesca, then 49, on a flight to Mexico City to visit his family while he stayed behind in California to tend to business matters.  During this visit, she and three of our relatives were caught in one of the deadliest fires in Mexico City’s history, known as the Astor Fire. My mother wrote a letter to thank her rescuers shortly after returning home to California. She also recounted this nightmarish tale many times to my father, my sisters, and me in the years that followed, always emphasizing that life and the people in it are gifts to be treasured.  This is Part One in a seven-part series about that night, based on my mother’s recollections, those of my relatives, and my research on the event.  – L.H.T.
My mother, Joan Huesca, had been staying with my father’s eldest brother, Enrique Huesca, 69, his wife, Mercedes “Meche,” 57, and their son Eduardo Huesca, 31, in their spacious three bedroom penthouse apartment on the seventh floor of the La Galia Commercial Building in downtown Mexico City.  The building, at 63 Venustiano Carranza Street, was located next door to the large Astor discount department store.  

Astor was always bustling with customers who liked the store for its bargain basement prices on household merchandise and clothing.  The department store, also seven stories high, typically papered its windows with large colorful sale signs advertising the latest slashed prices.

I remember Uncle Enrique and Aunt Meche’s home very well, as our family visited them often whenever we traveled to Mexico City. I had even stayed with them for several weeks during Christmas break in 1973.

Enrique’s linen embroidery business, Sábanas y Manteles Huesca, was on the fifth floor in the same building, making his commute an enviable one in the crowded metropolis.

In 1978, the office building housed only two families on the uppermost floor: the Huescas and the Estradas.  Eduardo Huesca, about to be married soon, still lived at home with his parents, his three brothers already having left to start families of their own.

Enrique and Meche Huesca’s apartment had two rooftop terraces.  A central terrace looked down into a square interior courtyard, called the “cube,” and outer terrace overlooked Venustiano Carranza Street and the busy financial district.

To reach the outer terrace, you had to exit through either the living room or one of the bedrooms.  The building was by no means the tallest in the area, but it offered a spectacular view of the financial district. Being so high up also provided a feeling of safety and serenity.  It lifted you from the noise and chaos of people and traffic, allowing you to take it all in on your own terms and affording an enviable anonymity that was hard to find in a city of some 8 million people.  It was like being on top of the world.

On Friday evening, May 12, 1978, Enrique Huesca and his two eldest sons, Enrique Jr. and Eduardo, arrived home from making a late night delivery of merchandise to the National Teachers’ Union, some five miles away. Although Enrique, Jr., wanted to get home to his wife and young daughters, he stopped upstairs for a short visit.  Meche set the dining room table with coffee and platters of pan dulce, or Mexican sweet bread, for a late night snack, and the family sat down to plan the weekend’s activities.

When the family finished eating, my mother called my father, Gilbert Huesca, at their home in California.  She excitedly told him that Enrique, Meche, and the family were taking her for the weekend to Valle de Bravo, a picturesque lake resort situated in a valley about a two hour drive southwest of the capital. Everyone took turns on the phone, including my uncle.  “Hermano – brother,” he said, “we miss you here, but you can rest assured we’re taking good care of our sister Joan.”

It was almost 11 p.m.  Enrique Jr. kissed everyone goodbye for the night,  promising to return with his family at seven the next morning to pick all of them up for the drive to the country. (1)  As he left, Meche and my mother went to the kitchen to clean up while Enrique Sr. and Eduardo headed off to bed.

My mother and Meche loved to sit up late and talk way into the night, and tonight was no different. Undeterred by the early wake-up time only seven hours away, they  moved their coffee and cigarettes to the living room, turned on the TV, and curled up on the couch to continue the conversation they had started earlier.  

My parents had much in common with Enrique and Meche.  Both couples had married in the month of August, exactly 10 years apart. The brothers were 12 years older than their respective wives.  Each couple were the parents of four children. Meche and Enrique had four sons, while my parents had four daughters. Both couples enjoyed successful businesses. Enrique and my father thought and acted alike. They were deliberate and precise in word and action. They shared the same tastes and mannerisms and often completed each other’s sentences.  Even their wives often were surprised to find themselves interacting with them similarly.

Sometime around 12:30 a.m., deep into one of those conversations that gives words wings in the stillness of the night, they seemed so oblivious to anything else that it was a surprise when one of them smelled smoke. Thinking they had forgotten to extinguish a cigarette in the kitchen, where they had been a short time earlier, Meche got up to investigate.

Reaching the kitchen, she noticed nothing out of the ordinary except for the odor, which was becoming stronger. She followed it out to the center terrace and saw black smoke rising through the cube.

The La Galia building was burning.

“She started yelling, ‘Fire! Fire!’, ” Eduardo would later recall.  “Her cries woke us up – the neighbors, my father, and me.” (2)

Still groggy, Eduardo grabbed the fire extinguisher and rushed downstairs to try to find the source of the fire.  There was so much smoke by the time he reached the third or fourth floor that he could hardly see, much less breathe.  Perhaps in shock – he did not know why –  he dropped the fire extinguisher on the ground and raced swiftly back to the seventh floor to warn his family of his findings.  He did not know how to break the news to them that there was no way out.


The Huescas in more serene days:  left to right:  Brothers Enrique and  Gilbert Huesca, Dr. Jose Felipe Franco (a longtime family friend), Joan (Schiavon) Huesca, Mercedes (Formento) Huesca, and Mrs. Jose Franco.  July 7, 1975, La Fonda del Recuerdo Restaurant, Mexico City.

(1)  Huesca, Enrique.  Telephone interview.  April 6, 2013.
(2)  Huesca, Eduardo.  Telephone interview.  April 7, 2013.

9 Thoughts to “The Astor Fire, Part 1: The Gift of Life

  1. Linda, what a shock for your uncle to discover that…seems like no way out!

    Today, I was so pleased to see your blog featured by Gini at Geneabloggers–a very nice write up! Congratulations.

  2. Thank you, Grant. It's amazing how we can fall in love with our ancestors when we take the time to learn (and write) about them.

    Isn't Geneabloggers a wonderful community? Thanks for reading!

  3. Oh how scary! It's a good thing your mom and Meche were still awake chatting so they could alert the others to the danger.

    Like Jacqi, I was also so happy to see you and your blog featured at GeneaBloggers! Congrats! It was so fun to learn more about you.

  4. You're so right, Jana. My mother was famous for staying up late into the night. She, too, said on more than one occasion that it saved their lives.

    I'm glad you enjoyed the interview! It's quite an honor, for which I'm humbly grateful to Gini and Thomas.

  5. Hola, mi nombre es Graciela Estrada y al igual que tu mami, soy una de las sobrevivientes de dicho incendio, junto con tus tíos, tu primo Eduardo, mis papás Javier y Ángela, mis hermanos Jesús y Javier, y una amiga que estaba de visita en total eramos diez personas las que fuimos rescatadas por los bomberos, si quieres saber mas de ese día te mando mi correo

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