Nancy Reagan, tears welling in her eyes, toured the rubble of earthquake-ravaged Mexico City on Monday and gave $1 million as a down payment on a major U.S. effort to help its neighbor recover from the devastation.
“Overwhelming. It’s just overwhelming,” the First Lady said softly after hearing the wails of a grief-stricken woman at a government relief center that doubled as a temporary morgue. Minutes before, Mrs. Reagan had edged her way close to the flattened remains of the 13-story Nuevo Leon apartment building and watched as rescue workers clawed desperately at the wreckage looking for residents thought to be still buried alive.
Mrs. Reagan, accompanied by Elliott Abrams, assistant secretary of state for inter-American Affairs, and M. Peter McPherson, head of the U.S. Agency for International Development, spent four hours in the Mexican capital, which was rocked by two devastating tremors last Thursday and Friday.
She stopped first at Los Pinos, the official home of President Miguel de la Madrid. She gave De la Madrid a green U.S. AID check for $1 million to help relief efforts, and her assistants said that was just the initial payment, with much more aid to come.
Then, together with De la Madrid’s wife, Paloma, and U.S. Ambassador John Gavin and other dignitaries, Mrs. Reagan was escorted on a jarring trip through some of the city’s worst-hit neighborhoods.
“I felt badly the whole time,” Mrs. Reagan said later on her U.S. Air Force 707 as she flew to Los Angeles to attend an awards dinner later in the week. “I’ve never seen devastation like this.” She described her visit as “a trip of one neighbor to another neighbor stretching out a hand of sympathy, love and concern.”
Death Toll Estimate
The State Department has said the known death toll is 3,461, but De la Madrid told Mrs. Reagan that the number may be twice that. Gavin has estimated that 10,000 to 20,000 Mexicans may have died.
It was the first time that Mrs. Reagan has represented her husband on a diplomatic mission. James Rosebush, her chief of staff, said it was her first visit to the scene of a major disaster.
Security was light for her Mexico City motorcade, which included an ambulance among its 15 to 20 vehicles. The parade jerked along the wide but clogged thoroughfares and frequently got stuck in traffic jams.
Crushed by the press of Mexican and American journalists and their aides, Mrs. Reagan, wearing a bright yellow jacket, white blouse and black skirt, was met outside the remains of the Nuevo Leon apartment block by Placido Domingo, the Mexican-born and Spanish-reared international opera star.
A Singer’s Kiss
Domingo, covered with dust from his search for relatives who had lived in the structure, put his arm around Mrs. Reagan and kissed her on the cheek.
“Every stone that comes out, we have some hope that they’re still alive,” he said as a construction crane pulled a huge pile of concrete from the mound. “It’s terrible to know they could still be alive and in that rubble.”
Besides the $1-million check, Mrs. Reagan gave De la Madrid a letter from President Reagan promising to “accelerate” American relief efforts as soon as the Mexican government pinpoints its needs.
In return, the First Lady carried back a letter from De la Madrid to Reagan, thanking him and the American people for “expressions of solidarity as well as for the tangible aid sent from all parts of the United States.”
Later, Mrs. Reagan visited a government center that served as a temporary morgue as well as a distribution point for medicines, food and supplies.
Scene of Grief
As she walked in, a young man staggered out of the morgue area shrieking in grief. He embraced two other men on the sidewalk and they all began weeping uncontrollably.
Mrs. Reagan was driven to the Centro Medico Hospital, where she walked quickly through wards filled with patients injured in the quake. She stopped to speak to some young children through translators.
At one ward, doctors asked her not to walk through because the disruption might harm the patients. She agreed, saying: “Please give them (the patients) my thoughts and prayers.”
Mrs. Reagan stopped at the U.S. Embassy, where she ran into Rep. E. (Kiko) de la Garza (D-Tex.), chairman of the House Agriculture Committee.
“God bless her,” De la Garza said when he learned that she had brought the $1 million gift. “That’s what they need.”
In Washington, the Agency for International Development said the U.S. government has provided the following aid to Mexico as of Monday:
--A five-member search-and-rescue team to look for survivors.
--Thirteen search-and-rescue dogs and their handlers.
--Three U.S. Forest Service firefighting helicopters.
--Bulldozers, water tanks, water pumps, power saws, cargo nets, 5,000 body bags, 5,000 blankets and 3,247 cots.
--Two teams of engineers from the U.S. Geological Survey and Bechtel Co. of San Francisco to inspect damage to buildings, bridges, dams and tunnels.
For the longer term, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund said they stand ready to supply emergency credit to the Mexican government, which faced a debt crisis even before the earthquakes.
World Bank President A.W. Clausen sent a message to De la Madrid offering to immediately release $300 million in economic development loans that had already been approved for Mexico, and to provide more aid once the need is clear.
The IMF told Mexican authorities that it is willing to provide an emergency loan that could run as high as $600 million. At the same time, Mexico has been unable to draw on a scheduled IMF loan of $450 million because it failed to meet IMF economic improvement targets. Officials of the international lending organizations said Mexico has not yet requested any such help, however.