The Astor Fire, Part 3: In God’s Hands

 

Joan (Schiavon) Huesca (1928 – 1987)
Enrique Huesca (1909 – 2003)
Mercedes (Formento) Huesca (1924 – 2004)
Eduardo Huesca (1947 –  )
 
Scene from the Astor Fire of May 13, 1978, before the building collapsed.
My uncle and aunt’s penthouse in the neighboring La Galia Building is
visible in the upper left hand corner.


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 Three 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.



Moments after discovering a fire on the lower floors of their seven-story building shortly after midnight on Saturday, May 13, 1978, eight people gathered in the Huesca penthouse apartment at 63 Venustiano Carranza, in the heart of Mexico City’s financial district.  

The group included the only two families living in the La Galia Commercial Building:  my uncle and aunt, Enrique and Mercedes “Meche” Huesca, their son Eduardo, their houseguest – my mother, Joan Huesca – and their neighbors, the Estradas, a couple with two teenage children.

Eduardo had run downstairs with a fire extinguisher to check on the source of the smoke they had seen billowing up through the interior courtyard in what was called the “cube.” Meanwhile, Enrique turned off the gas, and Meche called the fire department.  At the time, no one in the house was aware of the massive extent of the blaze.  It is unknown whether they had heard the earlier explosions on the lower level of the Astor Department Store just next door.

Eduardo returned moments later, forced back upstairs by thick smoke on the fourth floor.  The only thing that was clear to the two families was that their chances of escaping to safety were narrowing quickly.

Many people talk about but fortunately never have to take seriously the question of what to take with them when their house is on fire.  There must have been a momentary pause as the Huescas and Estradas considered that question.  Their notions of domestic safety were shattered:  all exits were blocked and the air was clouding with smoke.  The dilemma was clear:  could they get out alive?  There were no guarantees. 

No one panicked, perhaps because it was so surreal. My mother later told us that my uncle Enrique reminded everyone that they had nothing to fear because they were in God’s hands.  The thought gave them tremendous hope.

My cousin, Enrique Huesca, Jr., who had left a couple of hours earlier, recalls hearing that his mother, Meche, quickly went into action quickly, gathering up documents.  “She got all of our important papers:  passports, our sacramental and professional certificates, diplomas, checkbooks, financial information – everything that we would need – and she put all of it into her jewelry bag to take with her.” (1) 

Meche and my mother ran for their purses, and the group proceeded together through the living room exit to the street-side rooftop terrace to await help.  As she left the room, my mother grabbed her pack of Salem cigarettes and took two out, lighting one for Meche and the other for herself.

The fire department arrived soon after Meche’s call, undoubtedly one of several they had received about the fire that night.  The Huescas and the Estradas cheered wildly from the building as they watched the trucks in the street. By now they would have become aware of the inferno raging next door at Astor.

 

The street was a cacophony of emergency vehicles, horns, wailing sirens, and clanging equipment against the explosive sounds of the inferno below.  The group’s exuberance turned to shock as they realized no one seemed to know they were on the roof.   They yelled even louder to get the firefighters’ attention but their cries, even in unison, were no match for the deafening din around them.

The dilemma was compounded.  What would they do now?

 

 

 

(1)  Enrique Huesca, Jr., Telephone Interview.  April 6, 2013.

 

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Copyright ©  2013  Linda Huesca Tully

3 Thoughts to “The Astor Fire, Part 3: In God’s Hands

  1. That must have been a shock of a realization! Nevertheless, that stabilizing sense of being "in God's hands" must have provided a calming effect–at least it did in the moments leading up to this point–where everyone could think clearly about what to do next.

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