MEXICO CITY -- It was a typical Saturday afternoon on the corner of Chalco and Garay in Mexico City's poorest district -- until the ground opened up and swallowed Pati Ortiz.
Ortiz was sitting at Hortencia Gener's patio quesadilla stand when they heard the earth crack. Gener felt Ortiz grab at her skirt. She heard her scream. And then, Ortiz was gone -- sucked into a 20-foot-deep hole that ruptured without warning in the concrete under her feet.
It was a sinkhole, one of dozens that pop open each rainy season in a sprawling, overpopulated city built on the worst possible place -- a lake that Mexico's ancestral Aztecs chose as their imperial seat and that the conquering Spaniards drained to make way for modern Mexico City.
Bystanders and two bus drivers, who were scrubbing their vehicles while on break nearby, did not call police or summon an ambulance or the fire department. Rather, four of them -- one after another -- dove in after Ortiz in what became a failed and fatal rescue mission.
Three of them died along with Ortiz, overcome by poisonous fumes that lay just beneath the street's surface.
The incident is under investigation by city agencies to determine the cause of death and the source of the subterranean pollution that created the fumes.
Local residents and activist groups say it was a dramatic reminder of the many daily dangers faced by the capital's more than 20 million people.
But neighbors, friends and local officials say the case of the fatal sinkhole in the impoverished Iztapalapa district also shows a side of Mexican culture few outside the country ever see: a sense of community and selflessness that has shored up the nation's social fabric despite economic recession and political scandal.
"It's very noble, but it's also just the way Mexicans are," Enrique Rubio, municipal spokesman for Iztapalapa, says of the rescue effort.
"When there are problems, the people all come out to help you. Just look at the 1985 earthquake. Everyone dedicated themselves to helping others -- outdoing government services."
Public reaction immediately after the 8.1 magnitude earthquake in September 1985 -- which devastated more than 10 square miles of the capital, killed as many as 10,000 people and left 30,000 others homeless -- was a watershed for citizen survival.
The quake also led to the creation of dozens of grass-roots citizens groups that now are institutions in the capital. And it enshrined the survival instinct that repeats itself week after week here on a far smaller scale -- like the spontaneous attempt to rescue Ortiz.
Rubio and other city officials readily acknowledged that the cash-strapped capital is unable to consistently provide many basic public services, so residents faced with an emergency often have no choice but to turn to anyone who can hear a cry for help.
Recently released statistics underscore the problem. Response times to the 72,548 emergency calls received in Mexico City during the first six months of this year were dismal.
In at least 4 percent of those calls for ambulances, firetrucks or police, help never arrived. In other cases, it took more than an hour. And the worst response times were registered in Iztapalapa.
Short of resources, the city contracted the "08" emergency service -- the equivalent of 911 -- to a private company that operates it by charging subscription fees. The overwhelming majority of the city's population can't afford the dues.
And company officials concede that although the service is available to nonmembers, they get far worse service.
The Mexican Red Cross tries to augment the emergency services. But Isaac Oxenhaut, commander of the agency's ambulance service, said the sheer crush of cars and people often gets in their way.
Ambulances stuck in traffic on the city's major arteries are a routine sight. Most of those highways were built with perilously narrow lanes, and most lack emergency shoulders.
As a result, another daily image here is that of motorists stopping to help strangers repair a broken-down car that otherwise would tie up traffic for hours until road service crews arrived.
The recent sinkhole incident is a tale of how things work -- and don't -- in the most populous city on the globe.
The house and patio where Gener had her quesadilla stand shouldn't have been there in the first place, city engineers say. "It's a restricted zone -- within the canal zone," says Iztapalapa's chief engineer, Alfonso Hernandez. "It's illegal to build there; it's not safe."
The simple, one-story orange abode and its now-buckled patio is one of about 200 houses built during the past four years on terrain that once held swamps, farms and canals.
"By law, they shouldn't be building here, but they're building based on their needs," says Mario Teodoro Salvador, the neighborhood's elected barrio president. "If you actually process all the appropriate licenses, you run out of money before you even start construction."
"Inspectors come by, but you work out an agreement," he adds with a wink. "It's the easy way out."
Engineers acknowledge that bribery of building inspectors is common in the city's fastest-growing districts -- like Iztapalapa. And city officials say the influx of migrant labor from the countryside to the capital means people are clamoring to pay for the right to build on any sliver of land.
The falling water table that precipitates most of the sinkholes here ranks high among Mexico's most serious environmental dilemmas -- a problem rooted in centuries of bad decisions.
When the Spanish conquistadors took the Aztecs' imperial seat here in 1521, they began building on the dried-up lake bed made of clay.
The Spanish colonizers then compounded the problem. Having drained the Aztecs' lake, they had to build aqueducts to bring drinking water in from distant springs. By the 1850s, those springs ran dry and city officials began tapping into underground reserves. Today, the water is being pumped out of the aquifer much faster than nature can replace it.
As the water table has dropped, so has the capital: Mexico City has literally sunk a total of 34 feet in the last 500 years. And as the city increasingly exploits the water reserves beneath the impoverished Iztapalapa district, scientists say the area around it now is sinking at the rate of a foot a year -- causing buckling pavement, cracking foundations and sinkholes.
Iztapalapa engineer Hernandez says his preliminary findings show that Gener's patio most likely was built above an old septic tank -- an uncharted, subterranean relic from the days when the neighborhood was farmland. As the human and animal waste in the tank decayed through the years, it apparently generated lethal quantities of methane gas beneath the land that became her patio.
When the hole suddenly opened, it released the gas inside. Ortiz was killed within minutes.
As Gener dished out quesadillas and tortillas one recent afternoon at her new location just 30 feet from the still-gaping hole, she was near tears. She had known Ortiz for 12 years, she said, and her 34-year-old friend left behind two daughters and a son.
But the roadside cook steadied herself when asked whether she fears another hole might open up so near the first. She shrugged and explained that the bus depot is her livelihood; she has to be there, she says.
Pub Date: 8/24/96