Thriller Thursday: The Astor Fire, Part 4: Angels in Asbestos Garb

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

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 Four 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 had called the fire department and reported the fire right away, and my father had turned off the gas.  Our neighbors, the Estradas, came to our house.  We couldn’t take the stairs and definitely not the elevator, so the only way out of the building would be to climb down an escape ladder from where we were.   Smoke was beginning to come into the house.  We went onto the outer terrace facing the street and looked down.”   

                   – Eduardo Huesca, Telephone interview, April 7, 2013.

My mother, Joan Huesca, used this purse-sized
penlight to attract firefighters’ attention in the
1978 Astor fire.  The tiny light saved her life.
It must have seemed an eternity to the residents trapped on the roof of my uncle and aunt’s burning seven story building in Mexico City’s Financial District in the early morning hours of Saturday, May 13, 1978.  They had tried in vain to attract the attention of the firefighters in the street.  

Despite the hundreds of firefighters who were arriving from all parts of the city, not one of them seemed to notice the people on the roof of the La Galia Commercial Building at 63 Venustiano Carranza Street. 

Maybe this was because it was primarily an office building and the responders did not expect anyone to be living there.  Maybe they had been unaware of the extent of the fire in that building, because they seemed to be directing their resources at battling the blaze at the neighboring Astor Department Store. It became clear to the group that no one in the chaotic street below could hear their cries. 

My mother had an idea.  She pulled a penlight from her purse and started waving it back and forth,  flashing it off and on in Morse code bursts for the universal S-O-S signal.  My uncle Enrique and cousin Eduardo Huesca ran back into the apartment and returned with flashlights for the others, and everyone began waving the lights in all directions.
It worked.  Someone in the street pointed to the flashing lights. Soon there was a new flurry below as firefighters began gesturing excitedly toward the roof. The Huesca and the Estrada families, people of deep faith, thanked God for His mercy. They breathed a collective sigh of relief and awaited their rescuers.
Only after everyone was evacuated would they learn that the ladder down which they had descended was the tallest one available that night.  It had a range of 11 stories yet barely reached the top of my uncle and aunt’s building. My mother and my uncle later estimated that the high ceilings the seven-story building made its actual height of the building comparable to a taller one with standard size floors.  (Today, the downtown station has a ladder that extends as high as 20 stories.)
“We heard later that there had been talk of sending rescuers up via the neighboring rooftops that were lower than ours, harnessing each of us to a firefighter, and climbing down the roofs until we could get out safely,” Eduardo Huesca recalled.  “It was questionable whether that would have worked.

“When they finally got that ladder up, it barely reached us.  If we had been just a little higher, we never would have made it. ” (1)
Reality sank in for the second time that night. My mother, my relatives, and their neighbors realized they would have to go down that long ladder to get to the street.  
Two firefighters quickly searched the top floor of the building to make sure it was otherwise clear.  Others reassured the anxious group that they would all get down safely.  The plan was to evacuate the young family first and then came back for Meche and my mother.  Enrique and Eduardo would go last.
The first four were rescued, and it was soon Meche’s turn. She nervously kissed my mother and cousin goodbye, telling them she would be all right. Then she and Enrique embraced each other tightly, as if it might be the last time they would see each other. “I love you, Meche,” my uncle said tenderly as he kissed her goodbye. “May God go with you.” Pursing his lips, he stood back as the firefighters helped her over the parapet. He waved and watched as she descended slowly, the firemen gently guiding and talking to her all the way down.

My mother was supposed to go down next.

I was very frightened at the thought of having to descend the telescopic ladders to the street below us.  One of your courageous firemen displayed such patience to me, and finally convinced me to escape via the firemen’s ladder.  This same fireman brought down my purse, with all intact after I had left the terrace of the seventh floor.
There was another courageous fireman just in back of me while I descended the ladder.  This brave fireman, protected me from falling backward, and as I would place a foot out into space, this heroe (sic), with kind patience, would place my foot on each step of the ladder.  These two firemen shall always remain in my memory as two angels in asbestos garb. (2)

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

My mother was paralyzed with fear at the thought of going down the ladder. She protested vehemently, insisting that her nephew and brother-in-law should go first. My uncle sensed her anxiety but tried to persuade her that everything would be all right. She stood firm, insisting that she wanted to go last.  
“I’m Italian,” she declared in Spanish, turning to one of the firemen with a nervous laugh as she puffed on her cigarette.  “So you see, I’m a coward.   I think I’ll just stay up here until everybody else gets down. Go ahead.  I’ll be fine. No rush.”  
The dark sky had turned ominous with thick black smoke. Mindful of the dangers of waiting any longer, Eduardo and the firemen convinced my uncle to go down and promised they would help my mother. My uncle gave my mother one last hug and kissed her on the forehead.  “You have to go down, you know, Joan,” he said gravely, blinking back tears.  “You have to do it for Gil and the girls.”
Gil and the girls. My mother thought of her phone call to my father earlier that night. What would happen to him if she did not make it? And what about us – her daughters? There were so many milestones she wanted to be around for to celebrate with her family, so much she still needed to say and do. She knew we needed her – and she needed us. She  wished my father were with her at that moment, but she also knew what he would say. She struggled to stay calm.

She hugged Enrique back emotionally, her own eyes wet. “I know, hermano,” she said.  “Go with God.”  She watched as he followed one of the firefighters over the parapet and they slowly disappeared down the ladder. 
She turned toward my cousin and the two firemen left on the terrace. “I’m sorry,” she stammered. “I just don’t think I can do this. It’s too high…” She shook uncontrollably, the tears now streaming down her face.
One of the firefighters, a confident young man who could not have been more than 30 years old, took her hand and held it tightly. “Señora,” he said in a solemn voice, looking straight into her eyes, “I want you to forget all of this right now. Instead, I want you to think about Chapultepec Park.”
The thought of the grand and enchanting forest-like park in Mexico City took my mother by surprise, here in the midst of a raging inferno all around her.  “Chapultepec Park?” she asked, bewildered.
Sí, Señora.  Chapultepec. It’s a beautiful day. You and I are going for a stroll through Chapultepec Park – right now.  When you get on that ladder, I don’t want you to look down. Instead, just look straight ahead at the rungs and try to picture all the trees in Chapultepec. We’ll be there with you, guiding you every step of the way through the park.”
My mother loved Chapultepec Park.  With its acres of forest and wildlife, its museums and the hilltop historic castle that looked out over the city, it was an oasis for many Mexican families on the weekends and the site of numerous must-see tourist attractions.  The thought of the tranquil and breathtakingly beautiful park made her forget her apprehensions.

Maybe it was the surrealness of the moment, but the imagery and the fireman’s confident voice had almost a hypnotic effect on my mother, and she nodded back at him. “Okay,” she said, “but wait just a minute while I go back inside and put out my cigarette. I don’t want to start a fire.”  She laughed to herself, realizing the dark irony of her words.
When she returned to the parapet, she decided it would be too much to carry her purse down the ladder with her.  She set it down on the floor reluctantly, knowing she was also leaving her passport, wallet, and pocket camera behind. “Well,” she said, hugging Eduardo, “I guess it’s time, isn’t it?”  Still shaking, she looked around one last time at the apartment and took a deep breath.  
The first firefighter swung onto the ladder and waited while the second fireman helped her with her harness as she climbed gingerly over the parapet.  “Don’t worry about your purse, Señora.  I’ll bring it down to you,” he reassured her.  She thanked him with a quick smile, then nearly panicked again as her foot dangled precariously in the air for a moment. “Remember, Señora – we’re in Chapultepec!” a voice behind her said.  The first firefighter reached for her foot and guided it steadfastly onto the rung.  He did this all the way down, encouraging her calmly as they descended through the perilous smoke-filled air to the ground below.  

(1)  Huesca, Eduardo.  Personal interview.  April 7, 2013.
(2)  Excerpt from letter dated June 14, 1978, from my mother, Joan Huesca, to 
        the   Mexico City Heroic Corps of Firemen
To read the other installments in this series, please click on the links below:

Copyright ©  2013  Linda Huesca Tully

2 Thoughts to “Thriller Thursday: The Astor Fire, Part 4: Angels in Asbestos Garb

  1. What a wise man that firefighter was! To unstick someone frozen in place by fear–that's a gift and a talent! Thankfully, for your mother, that man had the insight to provide just what it took, in the stress of the moment, to free her from that paralysis.

    We may not have Chapultepec Park around here, but we can still apply that lesson to the crisis situations we face in our own lives.

  2. I couldn't agree with you more. We will be ever grateful to the Mexico City firefighters for saving my mother and our relatives. No wonder the department is aptly called the "Heroic Corps of Firefighters." I just wish we could have thanked them in person.

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