There are 1,820 licensed ham radio operators in Mexico, and on Thursday some of those amateur radio fans, who normally use their hobby as a sort of electronic pen-pal system, suddenly became a primary link between earthquake-ravaged southern Mexico and the outside world.
For about a dozen hours after the quake played crack-the-whip with the buildings and boulevards of Mexico City, the sputtering signals sent through the high, thin air from a variety of ham radio sets were letting the world know how bad it had been--and letting Mexico know that the rest of the world cared.
Across the band of amateur radio frequencies, urgent messages in Spanish and English crisscrossed the continent. “We are asking to reach her sister in Miami,” one voice demanded in urgent Spanish.
“Where is Olivas? I am very worried,” said another disembodied voice.
“Nothing happened to anyone,” the faint voice answered in Spanish from the city of Morelia. “We are all fine.”
Among the dozens who stuck to their radio sets in the makeshift emergency network was Frank J. Meckel, 64. Operating from the radio “shack” in the back bedroom of his home in Guadalupe Lakes, 18 miles north of Mexico City, he fielded calls from as far away as Montreal and Fort Smith, Ark.
For hours, ham radio owners all over North America eavesdropped at Meckel’s invitation as he raced back and forth from his ham set to the television or portable radio, passing along the latest news, and then patiently spelling and re-spelling his name over and over for news organizations.
He paused for a linkup with his own son, Frank Jr., in Texas, to reassure him that all was well in Guadalupes Lake, and fielded a call from a Florida father worried about his daughter, who was honeymooning in Mazatlan. All he could do for the frantic father was report that the earthquake’s devastation had apparently not reached Mazatlan.
Meckel said he had just awakened at 7:19 a.m. in his home in the lakeside town when the quake hit, and it was “rough going.” Meckel, who said at one point during his marathon broadcast that he well remembered the devastating 1957 Mexican earthquake that killed 56, told his son, “You will be shocked to see so many buildings completely down, but we are well.”
For a few hours Thursday, Meckel and other ham operators were reporters with an absolute “scoop,” talking about rescue efforts and the extent of damages. At one point, after monitoring his television set, he described the collapsed concrete floors of a tall apartment building as looking “like a club sandwich.”
By midafternoon, Meckel devoted his set exclusively to relaying messages about Red Cross supplies, fire hazards and emergency needs. For his efforts, he got some spluttering congratulations and pats on the back--"Keep up the good work, Frank"--from people who the day before had never heard of him.
Missions of Mercy
For one amateur radio operator in Vista, Calif., crisis was nothing new, but the magnitude was. Paul Jerome Stack is a key West Coast member of Missionary Hams, a non-denominational organization of Christian ham radio operators, which has organized emergency help for 14 children struck blind in the jungles of Peru and other medical missions of mercy.
“An emergency happens, and the amateurs are the first ones on the air,” Stack said. “They beat the military (because they) usually have stations in their automobiles.”
The unpredictability of atmospheric conditions, and the time of day and time of year, often meant that ham operators in New England had better contact with Mexico than ham operators in California.
Glenn Baxter in Belgrade Lakes, Maine, said he had made contact with Motorola engineer Carlos Emilio Sartorius in Mexico City, who was operating his radio by battery from southern Mexico City. Battery or gas-powered generators made the difference for ham operators in Mexico City, where much of the electricity had been blacked out by the quake.
Bodies in Streets
Sartorius, who had been taking a bath when the “terribly long” quake hit, said roads were blocked by “pieces of buildings,” and said he had seen the bodies of earthquake victims lying in the streets. The staff at one hospital was taking patients out into the street “because they thought it was safer,” he said.
An amateur radio operator in Schenectady, New York, overheard a Mexico City telephone operator tell an operator in Tucson, Ariz.: “This is no joke. . . . We have only one radio channel left. It’s a government channel. We’re trying to get it working so we can tell the world what’s happening.”
A talk show host at St. Louis radio station KMOX homed in on an unnamed woman ham radio operator in Mexico who said parts of town looked “like a war” had taken place.
Meckel twice took time out for family matters. After linking up with their son, Meckel’s wife, Gloria, told him: “The water from the pool was splashing way, way out beyond the diving board. It was wild.” The Meckels’ German shepherd, Bruno, “kept watching the water in amazement,” Mrs. Meckel said.
Meckel also reassured a niece and nephew that their mother, living in a Mexico City apartment building, had to be evacuated because of a broken gas line, but that outside of some chipped china, all was well. “Just say all of his relatives here came through all right,” Meckel said.
Meckel’s father moved to Mexico from Illinois in 1902. Meckel is a U.S. citizen, and his children hold dual citizenship.
Meckel--who started up his ham radio interest in 1967 to skirt high telephone bills while keeping in touch with nieces, nephews and children stateside--ordinarily spends his days marketing fire fighting equipment.
Amateur ham radio operators William Smith, Pete Willette, Dick Emerson, Lea Ann Gonzales and Foster Michener, all Times employees, contributed to this story.