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1,000 Trapped in Apartments : High-Rise Leaned Even Before Quake

Times Staff Writer

Officials in charge of the huge Nuevo Leon apartment complex, which collapsed in Thursday’s earthquake and trapped more than 1,000 people, said that the structure was leaning even before the shock and probably should not have been constructed on what has been described as the softest soil in the world.

Only three weeks ago, a group of residents of the 13-story, 288-unit complex complained to a government consumer agency that the building was in disrepair and incapable of withstanding even a mild earthquake. Some of those who complained died in the twisted mountain of rubble.

Nuevo Leon is one of more than 400 buildings demolished by the Thursday quake and the major aftershock on Friday. Several hundred more were damaged.

Since shortly after the first quake struck, engineers and architects have been searching the ruins in quest of explanations for why some buildings fell and others survived the back-to-back quakes, which measured 7.8 and 7.3 on the Richter scale.

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No Quick Answers

But it may take months or years before they find the answers, which could lead to a tangle of lawsuits and recriminations as questions are raised over the design of buildings, their location, the materials used and possible corruption.

Some Mexico City architects have already said publicly that because Mexico City stands on weak subsoil, buildings more than three stories tall should be banned. But others point out that several skyscrapers in downtown Mexico City survived both quakes with minimal damage.

The official government view is that the 22-year-old Nuevo Leon apartments met all the building codes in effect at the time. It is only in hindsight, officials say, that it becomes clear that the ground beneath the building could not support a structure of its weight and size.

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“Now it is easy to say it (Nuevo Leon) was a mistake--but who at the time could say that?” asked Jorge Gamboa, planning director at Funhapo, the government agency in charge of Tlatelolco, a vast, housing project that includes the Nuevo Leon apartments.

“No one at the time thought of the danger of large earthquakes,” said Gamboa, who added that it is nevertheless now clear that the site was wrong. An ancient lake bed underlies the complex and much of the rest of Mexico City, although the soil at Nuevo Leon is particularly unsteady.

Nuevo Leon, where rescue workers continue to claw through the rubble in search of the dead and the living, is actually three adjoining structures containing 96 units each. The Thursday quake toppled the middle and southern sections. The name of the original builder was not available Monday.

A ‘Notorious’ Tilt

A large earthquake that struck Mexico City in 1979 first prompted concerns among residents of the Nuevo Leon complex. That earthquake, according to journalist Nicolas Rojas, a resident of Nuevo Leon, knocked large holes in the walls, weakened the structure and caused the building to “tilt notoriously.”

“We told them (Funhapo) the buildings would fall,” Rojas said. “We were afraid of an earthquake of any size.”

Because of such complaints, Funhapo in 1982 began a two-year effort to reinforce the structure’s foundations by anchoring them deeper in the earth and adding cement pylons to existing ones, Gamboa said.

According to many residents--all of whom have abandoned their apartments for Red Cross-run shelters, relatives’ homes, or the streets--the work was never completed. The Nuevo Leon complex continued to lean and remained a source of fear and frustration.

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“We told them that the new support system at Nuevo Leon needed more work,” said another concerned resident who did not want to be identified. “Funhapo refused to listen to our complaints,” she said. “Funhapo said the buildings were good.”

Unconvinced, the residents three weeks ago took their complaints before the Procuraduria Federal del Consumidor, the consumer agency.

“Funhapo said it was a drastic measure on our part to complain (to the consumer agency),” the woman said. “We think Funhapo is to blame for what happened here.”

Gamboa strongly disagreed but acknowledged that “tilting may have contributed to the problem.”

“It’s like the Titanic,” he said. “If you ask me why it fell, I would say errors and bad luck.”

He added, however, that Funhapo has enlisted Colinas de Bueno, a prestigious engineering consulting group, to conduct an independent investigation.

Nuevo Leon residents were skeptical about such an investigation. “They will find what they want to hear,” ones said.

The Tlatelolco housing project was originally intended to help clear Mexico City’s slums by providing affordable housing for low-income residents.

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“It was an urban solution to crowding, a post-war idea of a modern city,” Gamboa said. “These people could live among tall, clean buildings with gardens.”

But Tlatelolco’s 102 buildings were eventually taken over by middle-class families. The buildings housed 100,000 people at the time of Thursday’s quake, nearly all of whom have been evacuated.

‘Collapsed Floors Inside’

Of the buildings in the complex, Gamboa said, “fourteen are in delicate condition and will probably be demolished.” Others “look fine from the outside but contain collapsed floors inside.”

On Sunday, about 5,000 of the displaced residents held a reunion at the Plaza de las Tres Culturas, a historic landmark near Tlatelolco with ancient ruins and remnants of Aztec, Spanish and early Mexican architecture.

There, they erected tents to spend the evening and formed food lines to collect plates full of beans and canned spaghetti.

A few hundred yards away, window panes continued to fall from the top floors of their former homes. Many people froze at stiff attention each time the sound of shattering glass echoed across the ancient square.

After their meal, the refugees gathered to hear fiery speeches from local leaders who chastised Funhapo for being insensitive to their needs.

“The important thing is to stay united and form a unified front!” one speaker shouted.

“They treat us like children. It is criminal!” shouted another. “Are we going to stand for this?”

“No!” roared the crowd. Some people thrust their fists in the air.

Julio Serrano, an engineer who lived in Tlatelolco’s Ignacio Ramirez apartment complex, expressed a fear commonly voiced at the reunion.

“We do not want the government to say the buildings are uninhabitable, pay us off and tell us to get out,” Serrano said. “We want the buildings rebuilt for the people who live there now. Tlatelolco is our home.”

“The people are speaking out of great pain,” said a Tlatelolco official who did not want to be named. “Not one thing is our responsibility--that’s all I have to say.”


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