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Assistance Comes Slowly to Mexico's Countryside

September 23, 1985|MARITA HERNANDEZ | Times Staff Writer

CIUDAD GUZMAN, Mexico — The two men stood in the town's central plaza and shook their heads as they looked up at the broken bell towers of Ciudad Guzman's century-old stone cathedral. Broken stones and crumbled concrete from the towers lay in heaps in front of the massive structure.

"The town is sad," said Guadalupe Guzman, "and people are saying that St. Joseph (the town's patron saint against earthquakes) has abandoned us."

The massive earthquake that collapsed high-rise buildings and killed thousands of people Thursday in Mexico City, about 250 miles to the east, struck this peaceful rural town and its neighboring villages with similar violence.

Hundreds of small adobe homes collapsed like sand castles, trapping hundreds of people in the wreckage. Most were saved from the rubble, but at least 24 died despite the desperate rescue efforts of relatives and neighbors. Earlier reports indicated erroneously that the cathedral had collapsed, killing 25 townspeople.

But the town's tallest structures--the dozen or so churches that tower above the squat dwellings of this town of about 80,000 people--were heavily damaged. Their doors remained closed, even on Sunday, because of fear that their cracked walls might collapse.

Many townspeople expressed fear that the statue of St. Joseph inside the cathedral had been damaged. But Bishop Serafin Vasquez Elizalde confided to a reporter that he had removed the statue from the cathedral before dawn on Sunday. He announced to the town later in the day that the image was safe.

Generations ago, the town beseeched St. Joseph for protection from earthquakes. They made him their patron saint and promised to hold an annual fiesta in his honor, the bishop said. "And we will have the fiesta this year," even if the religious services have to be held outdoors, he said.

Ironically, about 200 miles southeast of here in Lazaro Cardenas, a small industrial port town only about 40 miles from the earthquake's epicenter, damage was less severe. The Guadalajara newspaper Informador reported Sunday that five people were killed and 165 were injured in Lazaro Cardenas and 400 houses were destroyed.

Dozens of bridges along the region's coastal road were cracked and weakened by the quake. But repair crews kept the two-lane thoroughfare open.

In the resort town of Ixtapa, just south of Lazaro Cardenas, luxury hotels were closed and tourists were evacuated after Friday's heavy aftershock.

There was evidence of only moderate damage along the coastal route that stretches north across the lush, tropical countryside from Lazardo Cardenas in the state of Michoacan to the arid highlands in the neighboring state of Jalisco.

Ciudad Guzman is Jalisco state's second largest city after Guadalajara, 87 miles to the north. Reports Sunday indicated that 689 people were injured in the state and that about 600 homeless are being housed at a social security center in Guadalajara.

State Aid Arrives

Relief supplies, mostly food, were arriving here Sunday from state authorities in Guadalajara but no assistance had arrived so far from federal authorities, officials here said.

The town's residents Sunday were facing the task of burying their dead and rebuilding their lives.

More than a thousand of the city's homeless crowded into government shelters. Another thousand stayed with relatives or slept on sidewalks outside their damaged homes. In some of the worst-hit barrios, where water mains were damaged, residents stood in long lines behind water trucks to fill buckets and pots.

Women pooled food and donated supplies to prepare meals for their men, who were working to remove rubble and piles of dirt from what remained of their modest houses. Rain slowed the work, turning the adobe on the ground into mud.

Domingo Guzman, 45, his brother and their teen-age sons wielded picks and shovels to clear his corner lot of the adobe rubble, all that remained of the house where he, his brother and children were born.

Pain of Remembering

"It hurts just to remember," Guzman said, laying his pick aside to cover his face and hide the tears.

"We don't have the economic resources to be able to say 'we will rebuild,' but we will do what we can. As neighbors, we've all been helping each other."

A few blocks away, two small children helped an old woman, who lives alone next door, to carry small chunks of adobe out of her house.

Like other damaged homes in the town, Geronima Villalvaso's squat adobe house with its high whitewashed facade appeared from the outside to have withstood the temblor. But inside, all that remained was an empty shell piled high with crumbled adobe and broken furniture. Chickens and pigeons roamed freely through the house.

"The neighbors are helping each other to clean up the houses," Villalvaso said. "But where we will get the material to build, who knows?"

Some residents were growing angry with the authorities' slowness to provide help and with some official demands.

Move Order Resisted

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