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 Five 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 snapped this photo of two of the firemen who rescued her from a burning building. She never learned their identity. Shortly after this photo was taken, they were said to have perished in the fire.
My cousin, Eduardo Huesca, had watched from the terrace of his family’s apartment as members of the Mexico City Heroic Corps of Firemen escorted his parents, aunt – my mother – and neighbors down the long telescopic ladder to safety. The street below was teeming with frenzied activity as ambulances and more fire crews arrived to battle one of the worst blazes in Mexico City’s history.
Some time before, at 12:20 a.m. on Saturday, May 13, 1978, several bombs had exploded in the Astor Department Store. Eduardo and his parents, Enrique and Meche, were one of two families who lived in the penthouse apartments in the La Galia Commercial Building next door to Astor. The Astor fire had spread to La Galia, consuming the first couple of floors and trapping the eight people on the seventh floor.
“There were a couple of guys still up there with me,” Eduardo recounted in a recent interview not long ago, “and they were ready to take me down the ladder. One of them said, ‘Listen, do you smoke?’ and I nodded at him. ‘Well, can I bum a cigarette off you?’ It was a strange request, but I lit a cigarette and offered it to him.
“‘Look,’ the guy said, ‘this is big. There’s no way we’ll be able to put this fire out. It’s gonna have to go out by itself. That’ll take four, maybe five days.’ He took a drag of the cigarette. ‘It’s gonna be a long haul, so we’d better enjoy this while we can.’ He passed it to his buddy and his buddy passed it to me.”
They all took turns smoking the cigarette in their final minutes. “Okay, turn off the lights in there,” one of them said to Eduardo, pointing to the door. “Let’s get out of here.” (1)
As one of the firemen positioned himself behind my cousin, the others harnessed them securely together, and they began making their way down.
Thankfully, the fire in the La Galia building was not visible from the façade. “That was a good thing,” Eduardo remembered. “The fire was burning from the inside. The ‘cube,’ what we called the interior opening of the building – formed a kind of chimney that forced everything upward. It mixed the fire with the air and just sucked it all upward. Fortunately for us, it was slower to move outward.”
When Eduardo reached the ground, my uncle Enrique was standing beside an ambulance. My mother and aunt Meche were sitting inside. A reporter from 24 Horas (24 hours), a prominent news program, was peppering them with questions: How many dead are inside? Tell us how many dead?
“He didn’t realize that it was an office building and that no one else lived there,” Eduardo recalled. “He just kept asking questions and wouldn’t believe us when we said there was no one else inside. It was probably too late to change their minds. I think that was already the word in the newsrooms.”
The firemen who had rescued my mother returned to the ambulance with her purse, which one of them had retrieved from the rooftop terrace. Incredulous, she thanked them profusely and asked them to wait a minute while she took their picture “so I can remember you.” They smiled broadly for her before running off toward Astor to help their comrades. She never learned their names.
Sometime later, word would come back to the ambulance that the firemen who had rescued my mother had died in action in the Astor building.
In her letter to the fire department a month later, my mother wrote:
When I learned that seven brave heroes of your department had lost their lives, my heart went out to them and their families. God must have a very special place close to Him for these seven loving, courageous men. I will always remember them in my prayers.
. . . A few days after the fire, I saw a television program in which an official of the Fire Department…stated that the most important quality of a Fireman in the Federal District was the ability to love. The love, patience and concern of all of you was outstanding. (2)
The family stayed in the street for several hours under the watchful care of a doctor and first responders. At about six in the morning, Uncle Enrique turned to his son. “Eduardo, let’s pray to God that this is over soon,” he said. “Let’s get out of here – there’s nothing more we can do.” (3)
Eduardo thought of what the firemen had said to him earlier on the roof about the fire not going out anytime soon but decided against telling his father. He and my uncle helped my mother and my aunt out of the ambulance, and they all left the area on foot to find a public telephone.
|Enrique Huesca in front of the home he and
Meche moved to after the fire. He lived there
until his death in 2003.
Enrique telephoned his eldest son, Enrique, Jr. In his typical understated way, he asked, “Son, have you heard any news?”
Puzzled, Enrique responded he hadn’t. “Well, I do have some news for you. We all had to leave the building during the night because it was burning. We’ll be leaving for your house soon.” (4)
He hung up the phone and led the group to the nearby parking garage to get their cars, and they drove to Enrique Jr.’s home in the Del Valle neighborhood.