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The "miracle babies" of Mexico City: 25 years later

As survivors are pulled from Haiti's rubble, a look at the fate of the newborns saved after Mexico City's 1985 earthquake.

MEXICO CITY, Mexico — The world came to know them as the "miracle babies" of Mexico City, more than a dozen infants pulled from rubble after the devastating 1985 earthquake. With more than 10,000 dead, the newborns — some not rescued until days after the quake — gave hope to a shocked nation.

The still unfolding stories of dramatic rescues in Haiti — of life emerging from the ruins — bring back vivid memories of Mexico City a quarter century ago. The infants embodied a stubborn determination to hold on to life, a symbol of human resiliency amid disaster.

Mexico City's "ninos del sismo," or the "children of the earthquake," turn 25 this September. They seem now to represent not just hope, but proof that, while the scars of the tragedy would forever alter their lives, the people of Mexico City eventually would recover from the devastation.

Some babies escaped physically unscathed by the quake, while others would grapple with lifelong disabilities. Many, their mothers killed by the collapsing buildings, were taken in by aunts, uncles and grandparents.

A team of doctors, nurses and social workers has cared for them all these years. Foreign donors provided funds to pay for their medical care and even their education. Their caregivers say many have come to lead successful lives, while others have struggled.

Despite their traumas and injuries, the children of the earthquake today appear to be fairly typical young men and women: Some are day laborers, another a pharmacist at the hospital where she was taken as a near-dead infant. Some are unemployed. All came from humble beginnings.

“As babies, how did we survive all we did? The rocks, the lack of water?” asks Victor Hugo Hernandez, now 24, who was born two days before the quake and later had both legs amputated. “It was a great miracle."

A shattered city

The 8.1-magnitude quake struck Mexico City on Sept. 19, 1985, followed by a 7.5-magnitude aftershock one day later. At least 10,000 people were killed, three times that number injured and 100,000 left homeless. It was the biggest natural disaster in decades, in the most densely populated city in the hemisphere.

The first quake hit at 7:17 a.m. Juarez Hospital and General Hospital — the two biggest maternity centers for Mexico City’s poor and working-class residents — were among the hardest hit. They, like 400 other buildings throughout the city, simply collapsed.

Hundreds were killed, including doctors, nurses, orderlies and their patients — mothers and their tiny newborns. Rescue teams from France, the United States and other countries, and dozens of volunteers from Mexico City’s devastated neighborhoods, including family members of the victims, dug for days looking for survivors.

The Children’s Hospital, next door to the General Hospital, somehow escaped major structural damage and the rescued children began arriving there almost immediately. Of the 16 infants who were taken to the hospital, 14 would survive.