Anchor ads are not supported on this page.

4S Ranch Allied Gardens Alpine Baja Balboa Park Bankers Hill Barrio Logan Bay Ho Bay Park Black Mountain Ranch Blossom Valley Bonita Bonsall Borrego Springs Boulevard Campo Cardiff-by-the-Sea Carlsbad Carmel Mountain Carmel Valley Chollas View Chula Vista City College City Heights Clairemont College Area Coronado CSU San Marcos Cuyamaca College Del Cerro Del Mar Descanso Downtown San Diego Eastlake East Village El Cajon Emerald Hills Encanto Encinitas Escondido Fallbrook Fletcher Hills Golden Hill Grant Hill Grantville Grossmont College Guatay Harbor Island Hillcrest Imperial Beach Imperial Valley Jacumba Jamacha-Lomita Jamul Julian Kearny Mesa Kensington La Jolla Lakeside La Mesa Lemon Grove Leucadia Liberty Station Lincoln Acres Lincoln Park Linda Vista Little Italy Logan Heights Mesa College Midway District MiraCosta College Miramar Miramar College Mira Mesa Mission Beach Mission Hills Mission Valley Mountain View Mount Hope Mount Laguna National City Nestor Normal Heights North Park Oak Park Ocean Beach Oceanside Old Town Otay Mesa Pacific Beach Pala Palomar College Palomar Mountain Paradise Hills Pauma Valley Pine Valley Point Loma Point Loma Nazarene Potrero Poway Rainbow Ramona Rancho Bernardo Rancho Penasquitos Rancho San Diego Rancho Santa Fe Rolando San Carlos San Marcos San Onofre Santa Ysabel Santee San Ysidro Scripps Ranch SDSU Serra Mesa Shelltown Shelter Island Sherman Heights Skyline Solana Beach Sorrento Valley Southcrest South Park Southwestern College Spring Valley Stockton Talmadge Temecula Tierrasanta Tijuana UCSD University City University Heights USD Valencia Park Valley Center Vista Warner Springs

A first-hand story of the deadly Tijuana floods in 1993

When the rains came

The residents of Colonia Gabilondo, accustomed to the flooding, had built their homes up on two-and three-foot concrete foundations. - Image by Joe Klein
The residents of Colonia Gabilondo, accustomed to the flooding, had built their homes up on two-and three-foot concrete foundations.

In January of 1993, nine inches of rain fell on the San Diego/Tijuana region, seven inches more than normal for the month. Most of the rain fell within a two-week period, flooding many parts of the region. When it was over, 66 people in Tijuana had lost their lives.

My brother, Claudio Burgin. His best friend's parents were lost to the flood.

Antonio Romero, my brother’s best friend, lost his parents on the first day of the heavy rain. In the days following the tragedy, I would come to learn from my brother Claudio the story of Antonio’s loss.

Mexican soldiers clean up mud and debris

On the day of the 6th, when the heavy rains began to fall, I was attending my first writer’s conference at the Holiday Inn (now the ITT Sheraton Four Points) in Kearny Mesa near Montgomery Field. All day words of flood damage made the rounds among the attendees. By the evening, as the day’s last lecture was about to begin in the hotel’s 100-seat theater, we were being informed of street closures in North County due to the rains.

Sign indicates "No parking in times of rain"

Attendees who lived locally were told they would be unable to make it home that evening and advised to call loved ones and to make room arrangements at the hotel. A list of road closures was given, and some people left immediately to make calls while others discussed alternate routes, determined to make it home. Living only a few minutes away in Banker’s Hill, I had no problem getting home. Upon entering my apartment I turned on the late-night news for an update of the flood damage and saw my brother’s friend, although I did not recognize him at that moment, standing thigh-deep in mud with a shovel digging frantically.

From my brother, in the following days, over the phone, I heard bits and pieces of what transpired that early morning of January 6. A few weeks later, I moved to Playas de Tijuana, hoping to find some solitude while I worked on a writing project. The house was just a few blocks from my brother’s. There I met Antonio, who was now living with my brother and his family. What follows is their story as told to me by my brother. The name of his friend has been changed.

On January 2, a small amount of rain fell, beginning in mid-morning and continuing until late afternoon. It was nothing out of the ordinary, certainly nothing that hinted at what was to come, and by the following day the sun had broken through and all was well for the next day and a half. Then, on January 5 at about 6:00 p.m., a light rain began to fall. By 1:00 a.m. on the 6th the rain was coming down hard and the downpour would continue for the next 24 hours, and it would rain for all of the next 13 days except 1.

In Mexico, January 6 is celebrated as Dia de Reyes (Day of the Kings). On this day, according to tradition, the three wise men arrived at the manger bearing gifts for the baby Jesus. Traditionally, it is on this day, and not Christmas, that Mexicans give gifts, and only to the children. On this day Mexican families gather around the rosca, a bread formed into a wreath (rosca meaning wreath) . Hidden in the bread, depending on the size of the gathering, are from two to eight small, plastic figurines of the baby Jesus. Piece by piece, the rosca is cut and given out. The first to receive a figurine hosts a dinner party held on February 2, a day called Dia de la Candelaria— Day of the Candle. Others receiving figurines bring food of some kind to help the host. On the Dia de Reyes the rains came.

Colonia Gabilondo, built like many of the neighborhoods of Tijuana, sits at the bottom of the arroyo Aguaje de la Tuna. An arroyo is a desert riverbed. Aguaje de la Tuna is one of 62 such riverbeds that run down the hills of Tijuana into the basin of the Tijuana River, which courses through the middle of the city much as the San Diego River flows through Mission Valley. Colonia Gabilondo sits about two and a half meters below the rest of the city. For many years residents of Colonia Gabilondo had suffered floods. Only two years prior the city had, at the urging of the community, finally built a flood canal beneath the streets of the neighborhood. Where the riverbed ended and the paved street Guillermo Prieto began, the city had built a concrete flood basin to the underground waterway, but the underground canal was never maintained and so when it rained, the water slowly backed up and bubbled through manholes, searching its natural level and flooding the streets.

However, the residents of Colonia Gabilondo, accustomed to the flooding, had built their homes up on two-and three-foot concrete foundations, and so the annual waters had been nothing more than a nuisance, until now.

Over the years the "dry riverbed had become a dumping ground. Abandoned cars, tires, appliances, bed springs, concrete slabs, and garbage filled the arroyo. When the rains came, the water slowly pushed everything along until the junk became a dam. In the Colonia, after only five hours of rains the water had begun coming out of the manholes. In the early morning of the Day of the Kings, the dam broke. Cars and worn-out appliances gave way and a six-foot-high wall of water rushed down through the ancient arroyo.

Where the riverbed ended and the middle-class neighborhood of stucco homes began the water thundered into the streets like a train.

The first home went in pieces, the wall taking the force of the water, collapsing inward, and then as the water rushed in, the other walls exploded outward, furniture shooting out of the windows as if by cannon. The second home in the path saw the same fate. The wall of water, searching the least resistance, rushed onward along the street, picking up cars, knocking down telephone poles. The muddy river swept up children and the men and women who chased after them. The sound was deafening, a cacophony of cars smashing into cars, refrigerators hurling against walls, couches tumbling end over end.

“It roared,” one neighbor of Antonio said. “It roared and screamed.”

After 60 yards the deluge slammed into a concrete wall and a small, sloping hill and changed direction, turning with the street at a 90-degree angle. Eighty yards away the street made a left turn, but there was no hill to redirect the surging river. In its path was only a small brick wall and the stucco home of Antonio’s parents.

Whenever the rains came Antonio would never be far from his parents. His father was disabled and had difficulty walking, and his mother had grown old. The waters that flooded the streets had to be watched carefully, and so every half hour Antonio ventured out into the street to check the water level.

His brother’s Kombi (VW bus) had been parked next to the house in case the water became too high and Antonio needed to evacuate their parents. At 1:30 in the morning Antonio called his brother and said that the water level was getting high and he wanted to get their parents out. At 1:40 a.m., as Antonio gathered a few of his parents’ belongings, the dam one mile south of them had just burst.

The water rushed into the streets in seconds. A van, surging on the wall of water, acting as a battering ram, broke through the brick wall. The river, instead of turning, continued on through the home of Antonio’s parents.

Antonio was in the living room with his mother and was about to step outside when the water, sounding like a train, came crashing through the front of the house and quickly filled it. The water rose to the roof. At the instant Antonio heard the roar he wrapped his arm beneath his mother’s arm and across her chest. The water swept them into the bedroom, and with his right hand he grabbed his father, who was still in the corner of the bed. Within a matter of seconds the roof had come off the house and they were swept over the wall.

No sooner had he grabbed his father than the surging waters ripped his father from his grasp. Antonio then fought to hang on to his mother. As they were swept along, Antonio reached out with his free hand and grabbed a mattress. Neighbors later would say they saw Antonio and his mother fighting to hold on to the mattress, some even hearing her shouts for help. The water carried them two blocks and rammed them into a wall that was under construction. Hanging on to his mother, Antonio reached out and grabbed on to a rebar with his free hand. He fought against the force of the water, holding on to his mother, knowing that if he let go she would die; yet the rush of the water was too strong. It took her from his arms. She was gone. All that was left in his grasp was the sweater she had worn.

Sponsored
Sponsored

“At 3:00 a.m. Antonio’s brother called me,” Claudio recalls. “He asked if I had seen Antonio or his parents. I told him that the last time I had seen Antonio was about six o’clock at the travel-agency office. He then said, ‘Well, everything has moved’ — ’Todo está movido.’ I thought I had misunderstood. Maybe he had said that they had moved out of the house.

“That next morning I had planned, after dropping off a client at the airport, to meet Antonio at the hotel Ramada Inn at a political breakfast meeting. I was president of the local chapter of the PRI political party, and Antonio was the secretary. In Playas de Tijuana it had been very quiet. Playas is a bedroom community of Tijuana and is isolated, and we had no way of knowing the devastation the rains had caused. As I tried to get across the city and the Tijuana River to get to the airport, I found it impossible. The shopping mall in the Rio Zona was flooded. It was incredible. I had never seen anything like this before in the city. So after about 35 minutes, I turned on the all-news radio station, because I thought what had happened here was something serious. I couldn’t get my client to the airport, so I took him to the hotel because I didn’t even know if there was a way to the airport.

“The river had overflowed as well, and with the creeks carrying rocks, mud, and gravel, debris strewn the streets of Tijuana. When I got to the hotel, some of my fellow political members told me they had heard that one of the hardest-hit areas had been the Colonia Gabilondo. I became worried about Antonio and his family. So I headed back toward the center of the city along Boulevard Agua Caliente, which runs along an elevated part of the city. I got as far as the gas station near the Cadena Baja California radio stations, and that was as far as anyone could go because the river that runs through Colonia Gabilondo crosses there and goes into the Tijuana River, but I had never seen anything like this. The water was just going on top of the street. And the gas station pumps had been swept away and cars had been pushed up against buildings, and the water was flowing across like a huge river with rapids, flowing over cars, bicycles, big rocks, and refrigerators. It was a big, muddy river.

“So I turned around and headed back, as if I were going to Tecate, and I went up over the hill. There were rocks and huge boulders everywhere, and creeks that had never carried water were full and spilling out onto the streets. Finally, I got up the hill and went all the way around on Lomas Agua Caliente Boulevard. I had left my house at 8:00 in the morning, and by 10:30 I had made it to the home of Antonio’s parents.”

A drive my brother routinely made in 15 minutes, instead, took much of the morning. He had come through on the southern part of the city, and as he drove he listened to the radio. The radio announcers had begun to receive distress calls from all over the city.

“A girl called and I thought I recognized the voice. I thought it was Antonio’s sister. She pleaded to the public that if they had heard of Antonio or anyone in the family to please contact her. I had my cell phone, so I immediately called the number the girl had announced. It was Antonio’s fiancée, Eva. She was concerned because a television broadcast from a helicopter had shown that there was nothing where Antonio’s house had stood and no one could locate him.

“I became more concerned and told her not to worry, that I was a few blocks away, and as soon as I found out anything I would give her a call. I also told her that I would notify my wife to see what else was going on. I drove to the top of the street about a block from Antonio’s house. I saw nothing but debris and army troops and people with shovels. There was a bunch of things going on. I could see that something terrible had happened. Houses along the southern side of the street had mud to the top of the window sills. I saw a pile of debris: boards, trees, a refrigerator, and I didn’t realize until later that that was what was left of Antonio’s house. I didn’t realize it because I was in shock seeing the army troops and everything else going on. I walked through the mud, over and around boulders. A woman standing on the hill, who I recognized as a neighbor of Antonio, called out to me and said, ‘Last night I saw Antonio with his mother floating by.’ She said that they found Antonio about 3:30 in the morning on top of what was left of a neighbor’s house, in a daze. More like shock, I think.

“When I got to him, I saw that he was cut and bruised from the boulders and debris. He was wearing a yellow rain jacket and pants and rubber boots. His whole family had sets of this clothing in the garage because of these constant floods. The outfits looked like those of firefighters. I didn’t notice anything else but Antonio digging. He was digging next to what had been a eucalyptus tree. He was digging slowly, mechanically.

“ ‘Antonio, what happened?’ I asked. He said something about it raining around 1:30 or 1:40 and that it rained hard. I still hadn't noticed that his house was not there: no car, no garage. I was focused on him. I remembered, too, that two years ago Antonio had dug out a drainage ditch, and, also, many homes in Mexico have pilas [underground water storage tanks], and when it floods you have to dig out the mud and clean out the tanks. I saw the soldiers digging and knew something was going on, but I couldn’t grasp the situation because I had never seen anything like this. I had no point of reference.

“I asked him where his mother was and he answered that Red Cross had her, that a neighbor had told him that the Red Cross had taken her. I told him that we should go to the hospital and find out, and then I asked where his father was. He answered that he couldn’t go until he found his father. ‘Where is your father?’ I asked.

“ ‘He must be underneath here,’ Antonio said.

“He was digging under what was left of the tree. It was then that I looked around and realized that there was no house, no nothing. It finally hit me. I finally grasped what had happened. Antonio wasn’t crying or showing any emotion. I tried to get him to come with me, but he didn’t want to leave. I called my wife on the phone to let her know what was going on, but she already knew. The TV crews were already there, and she could see Antonio with the shovel. A few minutes before I had arrived a reporter had interviewed Antonio. I then called Antonio’s fiancée, but he didn’t want to talk to her. He finally got on the phone and, as he began to explain to her what had happened, he began to cry. He told her that within seconds his house, everything, was gone.

“I told Eva that I couldn’t believe what I was seeing, because I remembered the house — even the concrete driveway was gone. The flow of the river had been so strong it took everything, even the concrete foundation. Nothing, nothing was left. It was just one muddy empty lot,” Claudio said.

Reports began coming in on the dead. An elderly man, a neighbor who had known Antonio’s father and had seen Antonio swept away, suffered a massive heart attack. Another man, who had tried to come to the aid of the heart attack victim, had been electrocuted when he grabbed onto the wrought iron fence, which had fallen wires lying across it. The Red Cross was taking their bodies out of the yard as Claudio stood by Antonio. The electrocution led the soldiers to evacuate everyone. The army had now taken control.

“I told Antonio that we had to go, but he said he couldn’t leave. He refused. I tried to persuade him by telling him he needed to contact his brothers and sisters. Antonio had a brother in Texas and a sister in Missouri and another sister in Chula Vista. A neighbor told me that Antonio also had an aunt, who lived in Colonia Cacho, a neighborhood nearby.

“It was very cold, and I was dressed in a suit and trench coat. If Antonio was not going to leave, I needed to get more adequate clothing. I told him I would return to help him,” Claudio said.

My brother changed and by the time he returned, the army had removed a great deal of mud from the area of the street where Antonio had been digging, yet they had been unable to locate the body of his father. Soldiers in rain gear and driving small bulldozers from the Army Corps of Engineers filled the street. The big earthmovers had not been brought in because many people were believed to still be in the mud. They were still trying to account for the people in nearby homes. Red Cross, fire department, and the police were all there.

According to Claudio, when the mayor of Tijuana, Héctor Osuna, who had taken office only three weeks prior to the flooding, saw the soldiers he reacted in anger. Osuna was of the PAN party, which for the first time had won not only the mayoralty but the governorship of Baja as well. He had not declared Tijuana a disaster zone, and since he had not, the federal government, which was the PRI party, could not come in and assist.

“He needed the help of the federal government, and he didn’t want that. Unfortunately, he was thinking of his political problem rather than of helping the people. The mayor said that everything was under control when that was false: there were parts of the city no one knew anything about because these areas were not accessible.

“I returned in an hour and a half and brought with me some sandwiches and Gatorade, but Antonio refused to eat, and he still wouldn’t speak. I began to speak with the radio stations on my cell phone. Anyone who knew Antonio or me knew we were there, and so through the stations I received calls. While I talked on the phone I stood next to Antonio as he continued to dig in the same place next to the tree along with the soldiers who had not yet been called off.

“When I was at my office, I had told my employees that Antonio had nothing: his furniture gone, his clothing, his parents missing, and I was still under the belief that his mother was fine because of what the neighbor had told him. But upon my return around 2:30 p.m., I had found that information to be concocted, a report just to keep Antonio going. Antonio thought his mother was okay but knew his father was gone. That much he knew. So I told all my employees to call the hospitals and Red Cross to see if they could locate his mother and to see if they could locate his other family members.

“When I returned, I met Antonio’s brother. He said Antonio hadn’t eaten anything and that he had been digging since about 3:30 in the morning, almost 12 hours ago. In all that time Antonio had refused food and fluids, though he had accepted a couple of cigarettes.

“At about 5:30 p.m. it started to get dark and the soldiers said there was nothing more they could do that evening but that they would start again in the morning. The soldiers had been trying to get lights and to get everything organized, but it was too dangerous. And with fallen cables and not knowing everything that might be in the mud and debris, they could not have anyone walking around there. So the area, as well as the whole section of town, was cordoned off,” Claudio said.

As the soldiers and police busied themselves with setting up barricades, people still moved about the damaged houses, carrying belongings out. Homes on the southern side of the street had mud spilling out of their windows. Of the three homes on the eastern side that had taken the brunt of the force, only the home on the corner was upright. It sat crooked and off its foundation, its basement filled with mud. The other house, like Antonio’s, had been obliterated.

Antonio’s dark green stucco home with the porch and swing, the brick wall with wrought iron, and the concrete driveway landscaped with roses had been wiped off the face of the earth. The big old eucalyptus tree was nothing more than a stump. The neighbor’s white stucco house with its porch and red roof, also, gone.

In the three hours since Claudio had returned, enough debris and mud had been cleared so that it was possible to walk a couple of blocks, although with difficulty.

“The mud was still deep, maybe up to mid-calf, and people were looking for bodies and they were saying that because some of the manhole covers were off that, perhaps, some of the people missing had been sucked under and into the river that ran underneath. I was hoping that was not the way they were going to find Antonio’s father,” Claudio said.

A half an inch of rain fell that afternoon with the temperature hovering near 50 degrees. As darkness enveloped the street, Antonio still refused food and fluids.

“ ‘Antonio, where are you going to sleep tonight?’ I asked. He answered that his brother was here with him now and his aunt was a few blocks away. He guessed he was going with them. I didn’t have the aunt’s phone number and I knew I was going to lose contact with him, so I told Antonio that I would meet him here tomorrow as soon as it got light.”

Antonio agreed and Claudio left him half a pack of cigarettes and a lighter. He made his way through the mud and had gone about half a block when he heard Antonio call out to him.

“‘Claudio.’

“ ‘¿Qué paso, Antonio?’

“ ‘¿Qué va a ser de mi?’

(What is to become of me?), Antonio said with a hand outstretched to one side.

“ ‘Don’t worry about it. As long as I am here, you are going to be okay. We will find your parents. You’re not alone. There are no words to express what you are going through, but don’t worry. As long as I am here, you have nothing to worry about,’ I answered.”

Antonio turned around and walked away and Claudio then turned and walked in the opposite direction.

“It was devastating for me to talk to someone who had lost everything, lost his parents, his home, pictures, everything that had to do with his life, his family albums, his stereo, nothing, nothing left. He didn’t even have a pair of sneakers,” Claudio said.

On the following morning, the 8th, at 8:30, the local community was out in force to help Antonio. He had lived there all his life and his neighbors rallied around him. Somehow it seemed that the neighborhood could not rest until his father was found.

Standing some 50 yards down the street from the eucalyptus, at the bottom of the hill where the digging was now taking place, it dawned on Claudio that all the debris around him was what was left of Antonio’s home. Boards and chunks of stucco had been carried there. That morning they had begun digging in earnest, thinking that if the debris had been carried there, perhaps, then, his father was also there.

On this morning, though, there would be no help from the city or the police. The citywide disaster had stretched their forces beyond capacity. In search of help, Claudio called his office at PRI and told his associates that one of their members needed their assistance.

“I told them what happened, that his father was here, and to check hospitals for his mother. Maybe she was unconscious. I told them that I was going to go to city hall to ask for help, because the city had pulled out the machinery. What had happened was that the disaster had been too great for the city.

“I went to city hall and stated that these people needed help. But at city hall they told me of the magnitude of the problem, that there were still parts of the city they had yet to get into. I explained the situation to the mayor's assistant and was told only that they wished they could help.

“I asked why hadn’t the mayor called the city a disaster zone so we could get the federal government in here. They could send in planes with equipment. They could send in helicopters. He was handling it as a political party issue. So the mayor couldn’t do anything because he didn’t have the equipment, and without the soldiers they couldn’t send people to help.

“The mayor’s assistant said the Americans had offered to send people down but that the mayor wouldn’t accept that either, saying that he would have to get federal authorization. The mayor, because of politics, left the people to fend for themselves,” Claudio said.

Obtaining no help at city hall, Claudio went over to the party offices. There he was told that they had members who were bringing in small Caterpillars and that they would send one over that afternoon or tomorrow morning, as soon as they located one. So that afternoon everything was done by hand and shovel. When he returned around 1:00 p.m., he saw that Antonio was not by his house or down by the debris. He had moved across the street to a house with part of its concrete wall still upright. The water had gone around this wall and had gutted the house, but between the wall and the house, in five feet of trapped mud and water, pictures and documents from Antonio’s home had been found.

“Antonio had placed a board from the wall to the window of this house and he was lying on his stomach sifting through the muddy water and pulling out documents. Workers figured if they could pump this water out, maybe they would find his father’s body,” Claudio said.

For the next two days rain fell intermittently as Antonio worked in this area, and, as they found pictures and documents, he would dry them out. It was all he had left of his parents.

“Antonio still was not talking. His brother from Texas and sister from Missouri had arrived. When his sister made it to the site, they called him and he went over to see her, but he was in sort of a daze. She got him inside a neighbor’s house and it was then that I thought that he might break down, but he didn’t. She was hugging him but his arms were down at his side, and then he went back to digging. They left him alone and then his brother and sister got shovels. The sister from Chula Vista was there too, along with her neighbors, and they were all digging. In some areas there were cars buried under the mud and firemen were checking them for bodies,” Claudio said.

During the night it rained hard and in the morning it drizzled. News reports were saying some 30,000 people were homeless, and the radio stations were swamped with calls from people saying that they had not seen any firemen, that no one from the city had come out to help them.

“They were all clamoring,” Claudio said. “So that night, when I got back to the site, I got on the radio station and said that everyone should send a telegram to the president of Mexico. I said tell him that we need the federal government in here to help us, because the impression the mayor was giving out, through his bulletins, was that everything was under control and that they were providing homes and places where these people could sleep and that they were giving them food, when, in fact, it wasn’t so. The mayor was even appearing in commercials saying everything was under control.”

By the third day Antonio’s mother hadn’t been found in any hospital. Claudio had heard that 18 bodies lay unclaimed in the city morgues and so on the morning of the 9th he began searching the morgues.

Back at the site, dozens of people continued to dig. A water truck was brought in and began pumping water out of the house.

“Without the city’s help it was just neighbors doing the digging. Everyone had gotten pretty well organized. Everyone was focused on Antonio. In the entire city he had been the most affected and his neighbors were trying to do everything they could to help him. Throughout all this he had continued to refuse to drink or eat. I was very concerned for his health, so I called a friend, Dr. Avila Gil.

“I told the doctor the problem and I suggested injecting Antonio with a tranquilizer to put him to sleep, but the doctor said that would be the worst thing to do, that Antonio was in shock. He said when Antonio’s body tired he would eventually collapse and to let him be, but that he would give him a shot for tetanus because of the scrapes and the filthy water,” Claudio said.

When told he needed a shot, Antonio refused, explaining he didn’t want a shot, that others had tried to give him tranquilizer shots but that he didn’t need it. He said he couldn’t do that until he found his father. But Dr. Avila Gil reasoned with Antonio, telling him that if it were important for him to find his father he would have to keep his health, and to keep his health he needed a tetanus shot and fluids.

“He drank some Gatorade, took some vitamins, and got his shot. After that he began to take in fluids,” Claudio said.

As they slowly pumped water out of the house over the next two days, many of Antonio’s and his family’s items were found.

“His toolbox, his clothing, a suit, shoes, the chest of drawers that had all the house documents were found, even the TV and what was left of the stereo, and then his mother’s wedding picture and other family pictures were found and this began to make him feel better. He dried everything on wooden crates, barrels, hangers that had been scavenged from the mud,” Claudio said.

Finally, on January 12, six days after the flooding and loss of life, the mayor succumbed to the pressure of the people and declared a state of disaster. This was also the only day that it did not rain during the two weeks. Within hours, military planes loaded with equipment, blankets, and emergency kitchens landed, and military personnel began to deploy throughout the city. At 1:00 p.m., the federal government flew in Carlos Rojas, the head of a public-improvement program. Arriving at the airport under heavy security, Rojas held a quick news conference. As he began to speak, one of Antonio’s sisters, under the guise of being a news reporter, ran up to Rojas and began to tell him of her family’s ordeal. She had obtained credentials from a sympathetic media fed up with the mayor. The governor, who was of the same party as the mayor and who had supported his decisions, stood by quietly, his face turning red with anger.

She told Rojas that the Americans had offered dogs to search for bodies, that she had lost all hope of finding her parents. There were many bodies unaccounted for and two of them were her parents’, she said. The mayor and governor looked at each other, wondering how she had gotten into the secured area.

The mayor, trying to save face, responded that only the federal government could authorize help from another country. Rojas told her and the press that if that was what she needed, then that was what she would get. (Unbeknownst to her and Rojas, search-and-rescue dogs were already in Tijuana.)

Rojas said that he had been briefed and understood what was going on and that the federal government was here to help and would do everything possible to support the people. The president, Rojas stated, had received such a considerable number of telegrams from the people of Tijuana that he had sent the secretary of defense to Tijuana to observe and report back. The president felt his administration had not been given an accurate picture of what had occurred in the city, Rojas remarked. When his beliefs had been substantiated that things were not in control, he had been ready to send in the army to support the people, whether the mayor declared a disaster zone or not.

By the end of Rojas’s news conference, the army was back helping the community.

“This was something the government always had for these emergencies, but the city wasn’t getting it because neither the mayor nor the governor would ask for it,” Claudio said.

A few hours later, President Salinas arrived.

“It was a touchy situation politically because the city government was led by PAN and the federal government by PRI. From the airport, after a brief news conference, President Salinas went directly to where Antonio was still searching for his father. Of course, once the local politicians knew the president was coming they had all kinds of machines there, even a fire truck. The Red Cross had a kitchen there giving out pizza and tacos. They had so much machinery they were getting in each other’s way.

“Workers and soldiers had cleaned up the streets. The cars that had been buried had been carted away. You could actually walk down the street. It was still muddy because every night it continued to rain. But neither the mayor nor the governor wanted to get his feet dirty or muddy. They tried to show the president everything from the top of the hill above the street, but the president got out of his car and walked down the hill through the mud to where Antonio’s house had been and asked for Antonio by name.

“He asked Antonio how he was. Antonio responded that they had not been able to get any help. He told the president that he had been to the mayor’s office himself and that even though they had said it was too much for the city to handle, they would not call the city a disaster area. The president told Antonio, ‘You are not alone, and we are going to find your parents.’

“The president took off and went around the corner with the press, and Secretary of Social Development Luis Donaldo Colosio Murrieta [a future presidential candidate, who was assassinated in Tijuana in 1994] stayed behind. We knew Colosio from the party, and I walked with him and Antonio. Colosio said, ‘This is something terrible. It’s unfortunate what has happened politically. They are handling this as if it were political. It’s not political. The first thing is to help the people and then worry about who receives the credit. So sad that it has taken this long for us to come here, but it is the politics. We just can’t come in. It is a sovereign state,’ ” Claudio said, recalling Colosio’s words.

They walked with Colosio back to his car, where the president continued to speak to the press. After a few minutes, President Salinas and Colosio were in their cars and heading to the airport.

The 13th was Antonio’s birthday. It had been seven days since his parents had been swept away, and Antonio still would not talk.

“All he did was look for papers. I was still trying to find a way to reach him. He always liked my kids. He would come over to the house and help Erik, my youngest son, fix up his bike. Antonio is Erik’s godfather. I thought maybe if he saw Erik it would cheer him up. This condition had been going on for a week. So my wife and kids drove down there. They hadn’t been there. They had only seen it on TV.

“I took the kids to Antonio. My wife stayed back at the corner because it was still muddy. They went up to Antonio and wished him a happy birthday. He was digging, of course. He looked up to acknowledge them but he wouldn’t talk; then he returned to digging. Erik said, ‘Feliz cumpleanos’ [Happy birthday], but he kept on digging. I told Antonio that I had to go to the bank to make some business deposits but we would be right back. We brought him some Gatorade and some tortas and left them on top of a barrel. He nodded but he wouldn’t talk.

“No sooner was I at the top of the hill and in the car driving away than I heard on the radio Antonio’s name mentioned. By that time, ever since the president had talked to him, Antonio had become headlines throughout the nation. The broadcaster said that 24 hours after the president had authorized the dogs to come in and ’search, they had located his mother. I said, ‘Whoa, they found her.’ I tried to get to where they had located her, but the streets were blocked off.”

One block south of Boulevard Agua Caliente at the same intersection Claudio had been unable to navigate on the first day of the flood, where the water looked like rapids as it rushed across the boulevard, they found her body inside the cafeteria of the Pinturas Corona paint factory. Factory workers, who had finally been allowed to begin the cleanup of their plant, discovered the bruised body as it lay uncovered beneath a table.

Failing to get to the body, Claudio returned to Antonio, again having to take the roundabout way, approaching from the south. By the time he reached the street there were so many news reporters and vans that the street was blocked. He took another street, the same one the president had taken. From atop the hill Claudio made his way down to where the house had been. Soldiers had cleared all debris and were now using a bulldozer to scoop the mud. At the moment Claudio arrived, the bulldozer lifted a load of mud and in the mud was the body of Antonio’s father.

“Luckily my sons had stayed in the car. As I ran down the street, I could see Antonio and his family gathering around the body. Within 15 minutes they had found both bodies of his parents’ on his birthday.

“People were saying it was such a sad thing to find his parents on his birthday, but I said, ‘No, think of it as your birthday gift from them. They wanted you to be at ease, Antonio.’ And that was the way it was. The very next day was the funeral and the skies opened again and it rained terribly hard. And the Zona del Rio once again flooded.

“After the funeral I took Antonio’s family in the company van that sat 16. After they buried his parents, I gave Antonio a hug. Everyone was in hysterics and crying. Antonio was still and quiet. He spoke very little, but he did say to me that he did not want to ride with his family. One of his aunts had a house in another part of town, and the family needed to get together. So that is where he wanted to go. He asked if I would give him a ride and then he called for his nephew to come along. Antonio always liked children. He was good with kids, and so Antonio, his fiancée, and nephew rode back with me and my family. I said, ‘You need to eat now,’ and he said, ‘Yeah, I can eat now.’ We took him to Denny’s,” Claudio said.

In the following days, a collection of money and clothing was given to Antonio by the Travel Agency Associations, of which Claudio was a member. The PRI party and the church also donated money and clothing. Claudio went to city hall and obtained for Antonio a new birth certificate and passport, which, according to Claudio, was issued without the documentation usually required.

“Even the American consulate did not ask for anything when Antonio’s visa was reissued. Antonio was pretty well known in the city by then,” Claudio said.

Antonio stayed at his aunt’s house for about a month. But Claudio, believing Antonio would be alone once his sisters and brother returned to their lives in the States, invited Antonio to live at his home. For a month he lived in the bedroom of my brother’s oldest son, and when the small apartment in the back of the house became available, Antonio moved in and returned to work. But Antonio soon found himself involved with court battles. He and other residents of Colonia Gabilondo were having to prove ownership to qualify for emergency funds and they were also suing the city for lack of responsibility in maintaining the drains and sewers properly. The legalities took so long and Antonio became so involved, eventually becoming their spokesperson, that he had to take a leave of absence from the travel agency. The lawsuits took over a year, and once that was done he married his fiancée, Eva, and they now live in Playas. Soon after the court settlements, he began working for the Ministry of Urban Development, helping poor neighborhoods that need sewers, drains, and paved streets.

Five years later I am again living in Playas and working on a writing project. Sometimes, as I drive around Tijuana and see the newly paved streets, wide gutters, and drains, even the newly planted trees, I am reminded that it has all come at a price that, for most of us, is unimaginable.

The latest copy of the Reader

Please enjoy this clickable Reader flipbook. Linked text and ads are flash-highlighted in blue for your convenience. To enhance your viewing, please open full screen mode by clicking the icon on the far right of the black flipbook toolbar.

Here's something you might be interested in.
Submit a free classified
or view all
Previous article

Thunderheads to the east, add native bulbs to your garden

July is our driest month
Next Article

San Diego mega homeless shelter at Kettner and Vine bumps along

Building's owner Douglas Hamm thinks it's "perfect"
The residents of Colonia Gabilondo, accustomed to the flooding, had built their homes up on two-and three-foot concrete foundations. - Image by Joe Klein
The residents of Colonia Gabilondo, accustomed to the flooding, had built their homes up on two-and three-foot concrete foundations.

In January of 1993, nine inches of rain fell on the San Diego/Tijuana region, seven inches more than normal for the month. Most of the rain fell within a two-week period, flooding many parts of the region. When it was over, 66 people in Tijuana had lost their lives.

My brother, Claudio Burgin. His best friend's parents were lost to the flood.

Antonio Romero, my brother’s best friend, lost his parents on the first day of the heavy rain. In the days following the tragedy, I would come to learn from my brother Claudio the story of Antonio’s loss.

Mexican soldiers clean up mud and debris

On the day of the 6th, when the heavy rains began to fall, I was attending my first writer’s conference at the Holiday Inn (now the ITT Sheraton Four Points) in Kearny Mesa near Montgomery Field. All day words of flood damage made the rounds among the attendees. By the evening, as the day’s last lecture was about to begin in the hotel’s 100-seat theater, we were being informed of street closures in North County due to the rains.

Sign indicates "No parking in times of rain"

Attendees who lived locally were told they would be unable to make it home that evening and advised to call loved ones and to make room arrangements at the hotel. A list of road closures was given, and some people left immediately to make calls while others discussed alternate routes, determined to make it home. Living only a few minutes away in Banker’s Hill, I had no problem getting home. Upon entering my apartment I turned on the late-night news for an update of the flood damage and saw my brother’s friend, although I did not recognize him at that moment, standing thigh-deep in mud with a shovel digging frantically.

From my brother, in the following days, over the phone, I heard bits and pieces of what transpired that early morning of January 6. A few weeks later, I moved to Playas de Tijuana, hoping to find some solitude while I worked on a writing project. The house was just a few blocks from my brother’s. There I met Antonio, who was now living with my brother and his family. What follows is their story as told to me by my brother. The name of his friend has been changed.

On January 2, a small amount of rain fell, beginning in mid-morning and continuing until late afternoon. It was nothing out of the ordinary, certainly nothing that hinted at what was to come, and by the following day the sun had broken through and all was well for the next day and a half. Then, on January 5 at about 6:00 p.m., a light rain began to fall. By 1:00 a.m. on the 6th the rain was coming down hard and the downpour would continue for the next 24 hours, and it would rain for all of the next 13 days except 1.

In Mexico, January 6 is celebrated as Dia de Reyes (Day of the Kings). On this day, according to tradition, the three wise men arrived at the manger bearing gifts for the baby Jesus. Traditionally, it is on this day, and not Christmas, that Mexicans give gifts, and only to the children. On this day Mexican families gather around the rosca, a bread formed into a wreath (rosca meaning wreath) . Hidden in the bread, depending on the size of the gathering, are from two to eight small, plastic figurines of the baby Jesus. Piece by piece, the rosca is cut and given out. The first to receive a figurine hosts a dinner party held on February 2, a day called Dia de la Candelaria— Day of the Candle. Others receiving figurines bring food of some kind to help the host. On the Dia de Reyes the rains came.

Colonia Gabilondo, built like many of the neighborhoods of Tijuana, sits at the bottom of the arroyo Aguaje de la Tuna. An arroyo is a desert riverbed. Aguaje de la Tuna is one of 62 such riverbeds that run down the hills of Tijuana into the basin of the Tijuana River, which courses through the middle of the city much as the San Diego River flows through Mission Valley. Colonia Gabilondo sits about two and a half meters below the rest of the city. For many years residents of Colonia Gabilondo had suffered floods. Only two years prior the city had, at the urging of the community, finally built a flood canal beneath the streets of the neighborhood. Where the riverbed ended and the paved street Guillermo Prieto began, the city had built a concrete flood basin to the underground waterway, but the underground canal was never maintained and so when it rained, the water slowly backed up and bubbled through manholes, searching its natural level and flooding the streets.

However, the residents of Colonia Gabilondo, accustomed to the flooding, had built their homes up on two-and three-foot concrete foundations, and so the annual waters had been nothing more than a nuisance, until now.

Over the years the "dry riverbed had become a dumping ground. Abandoned cars, tires, appliances, bed springs, concrete slabs, and garbage filled the arroyo. When the rains came, the water slowly pushed everything along until the junk became a dam. In the Colonia, after only five hours of rains the water had begun coming out of the manholes. In the early morning of the Day of the Kings, the dam broke. Cars and worn-out appliances gave way and a six-foot-high wall of water rushed down through the ancient arroyo.

Where the riverbed ended and the middle-class neighborhood of stucco homes began the water thundered into the streets like a train.

The first home went in pieces, the wall taking the force of the water, collapsing inward, and then as the water rushed in, the other walls exploded outward, furniture shooting out of the windows as if by cannon. The second home in the path saw the same fate. The wall of water, searching the least resistance, rushed onward along the street, picking up cars, knocking down telephone poles. The muddy river swept up children and the men and women who chased after them. The sound was deafening, a cacophony of cars smashing into cars, refrigerators hurling against walls, couches tumbling end over end.

“It roared,” one neighbor of Antonio said. “It roared and screamed.”

After 60 yards the deluge slammed into a concrete wall and a small, sloping hill and changed direction, turning with the street at a 90-degree angle. Eighty yards away the street made a left turn, but there was no hill to redirect the surging river. In its path was only a small brick wall and the stucco home of Antonio’s parents.

Whenever the rains came Antonio would never be far from his parents. His father was disabled and had difficulty walking, and his mother had grown old. The waters that flooded the streets had to be watched carefully, and so every half hour Antonio ventured out into the street to check the water level.

His brother’s Kombi (VW bus) had been parked next to the house in case the water became too high and Antonio needed to evacuate their parents. At 1:30 in the morning Antonio called his brother and said that the water level was getting high and he wanted to get their parents out. At 1:40 a.m., as Antonio gathered a few of his parents’ belongings, the dam one mile south of them had just burst.

The water rushed into the streets in seconds. A van, surging on the wall of water, acting as a battering ram, broke through the brick wall. The river, instead of turning, continued on through the home of Antonio’s parents.

Antonio was in the living room with his mother and was about to step outside when the water, sounding like a train, came crashing through the front of the house and quickly filled it. The water rose to the roof. At the instant Antonio heard the roar he wrapped his arm beneath his mother’s arm and across her chest. The water swept them into the bedroom, and with his right hand he grabbed his father, who was still in the corner of the bed. Within a matter of seconds the roof had come off the house and they were swept over the wall.

No sooner had he grabbed his father than the surging waters ripped his father from his grasp. Antonio then fought to hang on to his mother. As they were swept along, Antonio reached out with his free hand and grabbed a mattress. Neighbors later would say they saw Antonio and his mother fighting to hold on to the mattress, some even hearing her shouts for help. The water carried them two blocks and rammed them into a wall that was under construction. Hanging on to his mother, Antonio reached out and grabbed on to a rebar with his free hand. He fought against the force of the water, holding on to his mother, knowing that if he let go she would die; yet the rush of the water was too strong. It took her from his arms. She was gone. All that was left in his grasp was the sweater she had worn.

Sponsored
Sponsored

“At 3:00 a.m. Antonio’s brother called me,” Claudio recalls. “He asked if I had seen Antonio or his parents. I told him that the last time I had seen Antonio was about six o’clock at the travel-agency office. He then said, ‘Well, everything has moved’ — ’Todo está movido.’ I thought I had misunderstood. Maybe he had said that they had moved out of the house.

“That next morning I had planned, after dropping off a client at the airport, to meet Antonio at the hotel Ramada Inn at a political breakfast meeting. I was president of the local chapter of the PRI political party, and Antonio was the secretary. In Playas de Tijuana it had been very quiet. Playas is a bedroom community of Tijuana and is isolated, and we had no way of knowing the devastation the rains had caused. As I tried to get across the city and the Tijuana River to get to the airport, I found it impossible. The shopping mall in the Rio Zona was flooded. It was incredible. I had never seen anything like this before in the city. So after about 35 minutes, I turned on the all-news radio station, because I thought what had happened here was something serious. I couldn’t get my client to the airport, so I took him to the hotel because I didn’t even know if there was a way to the airport.

“The river had overflowed as well, and with the creeks carrying rocks, mud, and gravel, debris strewn the streets of Tijuana. When I got to the hotel, some of my fellow political members told me they had heard that one of the hardest-hit areas had been the Colonia Gabilondo. I became worried about Antonio and his family. So I headed back toward the center of the city along Boulevard Agua Caliente, which runs along an elevated part of the city. I got as far as the gas station near the Cadena Baja California radio stations, and that was as far as anyone could go because the river that runs through Colonia Gabilondo crosses there and goes into the Tijuana River, but I had never seen anything like this. The water was just going on top of the street. And the gas station pumps had been swept away and cars had been pushed up against buildings, and the water was flowing across like a huge river with rapids, flowing over cars, bicycles, big rocks, and refrigerators. It was a big, muddy river.

“So I turned around and headed back, as if I were going to Tecate, and I went up over the hill. There were rocks and huge boulders everywhere, and creeks that had never carried water were full and spilling out onto the streets. Finally, I got up the hill and went all the way around on Lomas Agua Caliente Boulevard. I had left my house at 8:00 in the morning, and by 10:30 I had made it to the home of Antonio’s parents.”

A drive my brother routinely made in 15 minutes, instead, took much of the morning. He had come through on the southern part of the city, and as he drove he listened to the radio. The radio announcers had begun to receive distress calls from all over the city.

“A girl called and I thought I recognized the voice. I thought it was Antonio’s sister. She pleaded to the public that if they had heard of Antonio or anyone in the family to please contact her. I had my cell phone, so I immediately called the number the girl had announced. It was Antonio’s fiancée, Eva. She was concerned because a television broadcast from a helicopter had shown that there was nothing where Antonio’s house had stood and no one could locate him.

“I became more concerned and told her not to worry, that I was a few blocks away, and as soon as I found out anything I would give her a call. I also told her that I would notify my wife to see what else was going on. I drove to the top of the street about a block from Antonio’s house. I saw nothing but debris and army troops and people with shovels. There was a bunch of things going on. I could see that something terrible had happened. Houses along the southern side of the street had mud to the top of the window sills. I saw a pile of debris: boards, trees, a refrigerator, and I didn’t realize until later that that was what was left of Antonio’s house. I didn’t realize it because I was in shock seeing the army troops and everything else going on. I walked through the mud, over and around boulders. A woman standing on the hill, who I recognized as a neighbor of Antonio, called out to me and said, ‘Last night I saw Antonio with his mother floating by.’ She said that they found Antonio about 3:30 in the morning on top of what was left of a neighbor’s house, in a daze. More like shock, I think.

“When I got to him, I saw that he was cut and bruised from the boulders and debris. He was wearing a yellow rain jacket and pants and rubber boots. His whole family had sets of this clothing in the garage because of these constant floods. The outfits looked like those of firefighters. I didn’t notice anything else but Antonio digging. He was digging next to what had been a eucalyptus tree. He was digging slowly, mechanically.

“ ‘Antonio, what happened?’ I asked. He said something about it raining around 1:30 or 1:40 and that it rained hard. I still hadn't noticed that his house was not there: no car, no garage. I was focused on him. I remembered, too, that two years ago Antonio had dug out a drainage ditch, and, also, many homes in Mexico have pilas [underground water storage tanks], and when it floods you have to dig out the mud and clean out the tanks. I saw the soldiers digging and knew something was going on, but I couldn’t grasp the situation because I had never seen anything like this. I had no point of reference.

“I asked him where his mother was and he answered that Red Cross had her, that a neighbor had told him that the Red Cross had taken her. I told him that we should go to the hospital and find out, and then I asked where his father was. He answered that he couldn’t go until he found his father. ‘Where is your father?’ I asked.

“ ‘He must be underneath here,’ Antonio said.

“He was digging under what was left of the tree. It was then that I looked around and realized that there was no house, no nothing. It finally hit me. I finally grasped what had happened. Antonio wasn’t crying or showing any emotion. I tried to get him to come with me, but he didn’t want to leave. I called my wife on the phone to let her know what was going on, but she already knew. The TV crews were already there, and she could see Antonio with the shovel. A few minutes before I had arrived a reporter had interviewed Antonio. I then called Antonio’s fiancée, but he didn’t want to talk to her. He finally got on the phone and, as he began to explain to her what had happened, he began to cry. He told her that within seconds his house, everything, was gone.

“I told Eva that I couldn’t believe what I was seeing, because I remembered the house — even the concrete driveway was gone. The flow of the river had been so strong it took everything, even the concrete foundation. Nothing, nothing was left. It was just one muddy empty lot,” Claudio said.

Reports began coming in on the dead. An elderly man, a neighbor who had known Antonio’s father and had seen Antonio swept away, suffered a massive heart attack. Another man, who had tried to come to the aid of the heart attack victim, had been electrocuted when he grabbed onto the wrought iron fence, which had fallen wires lying across it. The Red Cross was taking their bodies out of the yard as Claudio stood by Antonio. The electrocution led the soldiers to evacuate everyone. The army had now taken control.

“I told Antonio that we had to go, but he said he couldn’t leave. He refused. I tried to persuade him by telling him he needed to contact his brothers and sisters. Antonio had a brother in Texas and a sister in Missouri and another sister in Chula Vista. A neighbor told me that Antonio also had an aunt, who lived in Colonia Cacho, a neighborhood nearby.

“It was very cold, and I was dressed in a suit and trench coat. If Antonio was not going to leave, I needed to get more adequate clothing. I told him I would return to help him,” Claudio said.

My brother changed and by the time he returned, the army had removed a great deal of mud from the area of the street where Antonio had been digging, yet they had been unable to locate the body of his father. Soldiers in rain gear and driving small bulldozers from the Army Corps of Engineers filled the street. The big earthmovers had not been brought in because many people were believed to still be in the mud. They were still trying to account for the people in nearby homes. Red Cross, fire department, and the police were all there.

According to Claudio, when the mayor of Tijuana, Héctor Osuna, who had taken office only three weeks prior to the flooding, saw the soldiers he reacted in anger. Osuna was of the PAN party, which for the first time had won not only the mayoralty but the governorship of Baja as well. He had not declared Tijuana a disaster zone, and since he had not, the federal government, which was the PRI party, could not come in and assist.

“He needed the help of the federal government, and he didn’t want that. Unfortunately, he was thinking of his political problem rather than of helping the people. The mayor said that everything was under control when that was false: there were parts of the city no one knew anything about because these areas were not accessible.

“I returned in an hour and a half and brought with me some sandwiches and Gatorade, but Antonio refused to eat, and he still wouldn’t speak. I began to speak with the radio stations on my cell phone. Anyone who knew Antonio or me knew we were there, and so through the stations I received calls. While I talked on the phone I stood next to Antonio as he continued to dig in the same place next to the tree along with the soldiers who had not yet been called off.

“When I was at my office, I had told my employees that Antonio had nothing: his furniture gone, his clothing, his parents missing, and I was still under the belief that his mother was fine because of what the neighbor had told him. But upon my return around 2:30 p.m., I had found that information to be concocted, a report just to keep Antonio going. Antonio thought his mother was okay but knew his father was gone. That much he knew. So I told all my employees to call the hospitals and Red Cross to see if they could locate his mother and to see if they could locate his other family members.

“When I returned, I met Antonio’s brother. He said Antonio hadn’t eaten anything and that he had been digging since about 3:30 in the morning, almost 12 hours ago. In all that time Antonio had refused food and fluids, though he had accepted a couple of cigarettes.

“At about 5:30 p.m. it started to get dark and the soldiers said there was nothing more they could do that evening but that they would start again in the morning. The soldiers had been trying to get lights and to get everything organized, but it was too dangerous. And with fallen cables and not knowing everything that might be in the mud and debris, they could not have anyone walking around there. So the area, as well as the whole section of town, was cordoned off,” Claudio said.

As the soldiers and police busied themselves with setting up barricades, people still moved about the damaged houses, carrying belongings out. Homes on the southern side of the street had mud spilling out of their windows. Of the three homes on the eastern side that had taken the brunt of the force, only the home on the corner was upright. It sat crooked and off its foundation, its basement filled with mud. The other house, like Antonio’s, had been obliterated.

Antonio’s dark green stucco home with the porch and swing, the brick wall with wrought iron, and the concrete driveway landscaped with roses had been wiped off the face of the earth. The big old eucalyptus tree was nothing more than a stump. The neighbor’s white stucco house with its porch and red roof, also, gone.

In the three hours since Claudio had returned, enough debris and mud had been cleared so that it was possible to walk a couple of blocks, although with difficulty.

“The mud was still deep, maybe up to mid-calf, and people were looking for bodies and they were saying that because some of the manhole covers were off that, perhaps, some of the people missing had been sucked under and into the river that ran underneath. I was hoping that was not the way they were going to find Antonio’s father,” Claudio said.

A half an inch of rain fell that afternoon with the temperature hovering near 50 degrees. As darkness enveloped the street, Antonio still refused food and fluids.

“ ‘Antonio, where are you going to sleep tonight?’ I asked. He answered that his brother was here with him now and his aunt was a few blocks away. He guessed he was going with them. I didn’t have the aunt’s phone number and I knew I was going to lose contact with him, so I told Antonio that I would meet him here tomorrow as soon as it got light.”

Antonio agreed and Claudio left him half a pack of cigarettes and a lighter. He made his way through the mud and had gone about half a block when he heard Antonio call out to him.

“‘Claudio.’

“ ‘¿Qué paso, Antonio?’

“ ‘¿Qué va a ser de mi?’

(What is to become of me?), Antonio said with a hand outstretched to one side.

“ ‘Don’t worry about it. As long as I am here, you are going to be okay. We will find your parents. You’re not alone. There are no words to express what you are going through, but don’t worry. As long as I am here, you have nothing to worry about,’ I answered.”

Antonio turned around and walked away and Claudio then turned and walked in the opposite direction.

“It was devastating for me to talk to someone who had lost everything, lost his parents, his home, pictures, everything that had to do with his life, his family albums, his stereo, nothing, nothing left. He didn’t even have a pair of sneakers,” Claudio said.

On the following morning, the 8th, at 8:30, the local community was out in force to help Antonio. He had lived there all his life and his neighbors rallied around him. Somehow it seemed that the neighborhood could not rest until his father was found.

Standing some 50 yards down the street from the eucalyptus, at the bottom of the hill where the digging was now taking place, it dawned on Claudio that all the debris around him was what was left of Antonio’s home. Boards and chunks of stucco had been carried there. That morning they had begun digging in earnest, thinking that if the debris had been carried there, perhaps, then, his father was also there.

On this morning, though, there would be no help from the city or the police. The citywide disaster had stretched their forces beyond capacity. In search of help, Claudio called his office at PRI and told his associates that one of their members needed their assistance.

“I told them what happened, that his father was here, and to check hospitals for his mother. Maybe she was unconscious. I told them that I was going to go to city hall to ask for help, because the city had pulled out the machinery. What had happened was that the disaster had been too great for the city.

“I went to city hall and stated that these people needed help. But at city hall they told me of the magnitude of the problem, that there were still parts of the city they had yet to get into. I explained the situation to the mayor's assistant and was told only that they wished they could help.

“I asked why hadn’t the mayor called the city a disaster zone so we could get the federal government in here. They could send in planes with equipment. They could send in helicopters. He was handling it as a political party issue. So the mayor couldn’t do anything because he didn’t have the equipment, and without the soldiers they couldn’t send people to help.

“The mayor’s assistant said the Americans had offered to send people down but that the mayor wouldn’t accept that either, saying that he would have to get federal authorization. The mayor, because of politics, left the people to fend for themselves,” Claudio said.

Obtaining no help at city hall, Claudio went over to the party offices. There he was told that they had members who were bringing in small Caterpillars and that they would send one over that afternoon or tomorrow morning, as soon as they located one. So that afternoon everything was done by hand and shovel. When he returned around 1:00 p.m., he saw that Antonio was not by his house or down by the debris. He had moved across the street to a house with part of its concrete wall still upright. The water had gone around this wall and had gutted the house, but between the wall and the house, in five feet of trapped mud and water, pictures and documents from Antonio’s home had been found.

“Antonio had placed a board from the wall to the window of this house and he was lying on his stomach sifting through the muddy water and pulling out documents. Workers figured if they could pump this water out, maybe they would find his father’s body,” Claudio said.

For the next two days rain fell intermittently as Antonio worked in this area, and, as they found pictures and documents, he would dry them out. It was all he had left of his parents.

“Antonio still was not talking. His brother from Texas and sister from Missouri had arrived. When his sister made it to the site, they called him and he went over to see her, but he was in sort of a daze. She got him inside a neighbor’s house and it was then that I thought that he might break down, but he didn’t. She was hugging him but his arms were down at his side, and then he went back to digging. They left him alone and then his brother and sister got shovels. The sister from Chula Vista was there too, along with her neighbors, and they were all digging. In some areas there were cars buried under the mud and firemen were checking them for bodies,” Claudio said.

During the night it rained hard and in the morning it drizzled. News reports were saying some 30,000 people were homeless, and the radio stations were swamped with calls from people saying that they had not seen any firemen, that no one from the city had come out to help them.

“They were all clamoring,” Claudio said. “So that night, when I got back to the site, I got on the radio station and said that everyone should send a telegram to the president of Mexico. I said tell him that we need the federal government in here to help us, because the impression the mayor was giving out, through his bulletins, was that everything was under control and that they were providing homes and places where these people could sleep and that they were giving them food, when, in fact, it wasn’t so. The mayor was even appearing in commercials saying everything was under control.”

By the third day Antonio’s mother hadn’t been found in any hospital. Claudio had heard that 18 bodies lay unclaimed in the city morgues and so on the morning of the 9th he began searching the morgues.

Back at the site, dozens of people continued to dig. A water truck was brought in and began pumping water out of the house.

“Without the city’s help it was just neighbors doing the digging. Everyone had gotten pretty well organized. Everyone was focused on Antonio. In the entire city he had been the most affected and his neighbors were trying to do everything they could to help him. Throughout all this he had continued to refuse to drink or eat. I was very concerned for his health, so I called a friend, Dr. Avila Gil.

“I told the doctor the problem and I suggested injecting Antonio with a tranquilizer to put him to sleep, but the doctor said that would be the worst thing to do, that Antonio was in shock. He said when Antonio’s body tired he would eventually collapse and to let him be, but that he would give him a shot for tetanus because of the scrapes and the filthy water,” Claudio said.

When told he needed a shot, Antonio refused, explaining he didn’t want a shot, that others had tried to give him tranquilizer shots but that he didn’t need it. He said he couldn’t do that until he found his father. But Dr. Avila Gil reasoned with Antonio, telling him that if it were important for him to find his father he would have to keep his health, and to keep his health he needed a tetanus shot and fluids.

“He drank some Gatorade, took some vitamins, and got his shot. After that he began to take in fluids,” Claudio said.

As they slowly pumped water out of the house over the next two days, many of Antonio’s and his family’s items were found.

“His toolbox, his clothing, a suit, shoes, the chest of drawers that had all the house documents were found, even the TV and what was left of the stereo, and then his mother’s wedding picture and other family pictures were found and this began to make him feel better. He dried everything on wooden crates, barrels, hangers that had been scavenged from the mud,” Claudio said.

Finally, on January 12, six days after the flooding and loss of life, the mayor succumbed to the pressure of the people and declared a state of disaster. This was also the only day that it did not rain during the two weeks. Within hours, military planes loaded with equipment, blankets, and emergency kitchens landed, and military personnel began to deploy throughout the city. At 1:00 p.m., the federal government flew in Carlos Rojas, the head of a public-improvement program. Arriving at the airport under heavy security, Rojas held a quick news conference. As he began to speak, one of Antonio’s sisters, under the guise of being a news reporter, ran up to Rojas and began to tell him of her family’s ordeal. She had obtained credentials from a sympathetic media fed up with the mayor. The governor, who was of the same party as the mayor and who had supported his decisions, stood by quietly, his face turning red with anger.

She told Rojas that the Americans had offered dogs to search for bodies, that she had lost all hope of finding her parents. There were many bodies unaccounted for and two of them were her parents’, she said. The mayor and governor looked at each other, wondering how she had gotten into the secured area.

The mayor, trying to save face, responded that only the federal government could authorize help from another country. Rojas told her and the press that if that was what she needed, then that was what she would get. (Unbeknownst to her and Rojas, search-and-rescue dogs were already in Tijuana.)

Rojas said that he had been briefed and understood what was going on and that the federal government was here to help and would do everything possible to support the people. The president, Rojas stated, had received such a considerable number of telegrams from the people of Tijuana that he had sent the secretary of defense to Tijuana to observe and report back. The president felt his administration had not been given an accurate picture of what had occurred in the city, Rojas remarked. When his beliefs had been substantiated that things were not in control, he had been ready to send in the army to support the people, whether the mayor declared a disaster zone or not.

By the end of Rojas’s news conference, the army was back helping the community.

“This was something the government always had for these emergencies, but the city wasn’t getting it because neither the mayor nor the governor would ask for it,” Claudio said.

A few hours later, President Salinas arrived.

“It was a touchy situation politically because the city government was led by PAN and the federal government by PRI. From the airport, after a brief news conference, President Salinas went directly to where Antonio was still searching for his father. Of course, once the local politicians knew the president was coming they had all kinds of machines there, even a fire truck. The Red Cross had a kitchen there giving out pizza and tacos. They had so much machinery they were getting in each other’s way.

“Workers and soldiers had cleaned up the streets. The cars that had been buried had been carted away. You could actually walk down the street. It was still muddy because every night it continued to rain. But neither the mayor nor the governor wanted to get his feet dirty or muddy. They tried to show the president everything from the top of the hill above the street, but the president got out of his car and walked down the hill through the mud to where Antonio’s house had been and asked for Antonio by name.

“He asked Antonio how he was. Antonio responded that they had not been able to get any help. He told the president that he had been to the mayor’s office himself and that even though they had said it was too much for the city to handle, they would not call the city a disaster area. The president told Antonio, ‘You are not alone, and we are going to find your parents.’

“The president took off and went around the corner with the press, and Secretary of Social Development Luis Donaldo Colosio Murrieta [a future presidential candidate, who was assassinated in Tijuana in 1994] stayed behind. We knew Colosio from the party, and I walked with him and Antonio. Colosio said, ‘This is something terrible. It’s unfortunate what has happened politically. They are handling this as if it were political. It’s not political. The first thing is to help the people and then worry about who receives the credit. So sad that it has taken this long for us to come here, but it is the politics. We just can’t come in. It is a sovereign state,’ ” Claudio said, recalling Colosio’s words.

They walked with Colosio back to his car, where the president continued to speak to the press. After a few minutes, President Salinas and Colosio were in their cars and heading to the airport.

The 13th was Antonio’s birthday. It had been seven days since his parents had been swept away, and Antonio still would not talk.

“All he did was look for papers. I was still trying to find a way to reach him. He always liked my kids. He would come over to the house and help Erik, my youngest son, fix up his bike. Antonio is Erik’s godfather. I thought maybe if he saw Erik it would cheer him up. This condition had been going on for a week. So my wife and kids drove down there. They hadn’t been there. They had only seen it on TV.

“I took the kids to Antonio. My wife stayed back at the corner because it was still muddy. They went up to Antonio and wished him a happy birthday. He was digging, of course. He looked up to acknowledge them but he wouldn’t talk; then he returned to digging. Erik said, ‘Feliz cumpleanos’ [Happy birthday], but he kept on digging. I told Antonio that I had to go to the bank to make some business deposits but we would be right back. We brought him some Gatorade and some tortas and left them on top of a barrel. He nodded but he wouldn’t talk.

“No sooner was I at the top of the hill and in the car driving away than I heard on the radio Antonio’s name mentioned. By that time, ever since the president had talked to him, Antonio had become headlines throughout the nation. The broadcaster said that 24 hours after the president had authorized the dogs to come in and ’search, they had located his mother. I said, ‘Whoa, they found her.’ I tried to get to where they had located her, but the streets were blocked off.”

One block south of Boulevard Agua Caliente at the same intersection Claudio had been unable to navigate on the first day of the flood, where the water looked like rapids as it rushed across the boulevard, they found her body inside the cafeteria of the Pinturas Corona paint factory. Factory workers, who had finally been allowed to begin the cleanup of their plant, discovered the bruised body as it lay uncovered beneath a table.

Failing to get to the body, Claudio returned to Antonio, again having to take the roundabout way, approaching from the south. By the time he reached the street there were so many news reporters and vans that the street was blocked. He took another street, the same one the president had taken. From atop the hill Claudio made his way down to where the house had been. Soldiers had cleared all debris and were now using a bulldozer to scoop the mud. At the moment Claudio arrived, the bulldozer lifted a load of mud and in the mud was the body of Antonio’s father.

“Luckily my sons had stayed in the car. As I ran down the street, I could see Antonio and his family gathering around the body. Within 15 minutes they had found both bodies of his parents’ on his birthday.

“People were saying it was such a sad thing to find his parents on his birthday, but I said, ‘No, think of it as your birthday gift from them. They wanted you to be at ease, Antonio.’ And that was the way it was. The very next day was the funeral and the skies opened again and it rained terribly hard. And the Zona del Rio once again flooded.

“After the funeral I took Antonio’s family in the company van that sat 16. After they buried his parents, I gave Antonio a hug. Everyone was in hysterics and crying. Antonio was still and quiet. He spoke very little, but he did say to me that he did not want to ride with his family. One of his aunts had a house in another part of town, and the family needed to get together. So that is where he wanted to go. He asked if I would give him a ride and then he called for his nephew to come along. Antonio always liked children. He was good with kids, and so Antonio, his fiancée, and nephew rode back with me and my family. I said, ‘You need to eat now,’ and he said, ‘Yeah, I can eat now.’ We took him to Denny’s,” Claudio said.

In the following days, a collection of money and clothing was given to Antonio by the Travel Agency Associations, of which Claudio was a member. The PRI party and the church also donated money and clothing. Claudio went to city hall and obtained for Antonio a new birth certificate and passport, which, according to Claudio, was issued without the documentation usually required.

“Even the American consulate did not ask for anything when Antonio’s visa was reissued. Antonio was pretty well known in the city by then,” Claudio said.

Antonio stayed at his aunt’s house for about a month. But Claudio, believing Antonio would be alone once his sisters and brother returned to their lives in the States, invited Antonio to live at his home. For a month he lived in the bedroom of my brother’s oldest son, and when the small apartment in the back of the house became available, Antonio moved in and returned to work. But Antonio soon found himself involved with court battles. He and other residents of Colonia Gabilondo were having to prove ownership to qualify for emergency funds and they were also suing the city for lack of responsibility in maintaining the drains and sewers properly. The legalities took so long and Antonio became so involved, eventually becoming their spokesperson, that he had to take a leave of absence from the travel agency. The lawsuits took over a year, and once that was done he married his fiancée, Eva, and they now live in Playas. Soon after the court settlements, he began working for the Ministry of Urban Development, helping poor neighborhoods that need sewers, drains, and paved streets.

Five years later I am again living in Playas and working on a writing project. Sometimes, as I drive around Tijuana and see the newly paved streets, wide gutters, and drains, even the newly planted trees, I am reminded that it has all come at a price that, for most of us, is unimaginable.

Comments
Sponsored

The latest copy of the Reader

Please enjoy this clickable Reader flipbook. Linked text and ads are flash-highlighted in blue for your convenience. To enhance your viewing, please open full screen mode by clicking the icon on the far right of the black flipbook toolbar.

Here's something you might be interested in.
Submit a free classified
or view all
Previous article

German Cultural Minister tried to cancel Wagner

Wagner doesn't appeal to the young because he makes too many demands
Next Article

Peter King lives a cell-free life

The art of conversation “has most definitely gone downhill.”
Comments
Ask a Hipster — Advice you didn't know you needed Big Screen — Movie commentary Blurt — Music's inside track Booze News — San Diego spirits Classical Music — Immortal beauty Classifieds — Free and easy Cover Stories — Front-page features Drinks All Around — Bartenders' drink recipes Excerpts — Literary and spiritual excerpts Feast! — Food & drink reviews Feature Stories — Local news & stories Fishing Report — What’s getting hooked from ship and shore From the Archives — Spotlight on the past Golden Dreams — Talk of the town The Gonzo Report — Making the musical scene, or at least reporting from it Letters — Our inbox Movies@Home — Local movie buffs share favorites Movie Reviews — Our critics' picks and pans Musician Interviews — Up close with local artists Neighborhood News from Stringers — Hyperlocal news News Ticker — News & politics Obermeyer — San Diego politics illustrated Outdoors — Weekly changes in flora and fauna Overheard in San Diego — Eavesdropping illustrated Poetry — The old and the new Reader Travel — Travel section built by travelers Reading — The hunt for intellectuals Roam-O-Rama — SoCal's best hiking/biking trails San Diego Beer — Inside San Diego suds SD on the QT — Almost factual news Sheep and Goats — Places of worship Special Issues — The best of Street Style — San Diego streets have style Surf Diego — Real stories from those braving the waves Theater — On stage in San Diego this week Tin Fork — Silver spoon alternative Under the Radar — Matt Potter's undercover work Unforgettable — Long-ago San Diego Unreal Estate — San Diego's priciest pads Your Week — Daily event picks
4S Ranch Allied Gardens Alpine Baja Balboa Park Bankers Hill Barrio Logan Bay Ho Bay Park Black Mountain Ranch Blossom Valley Bonita Bonsall Borrego Springs Boulevard Campo Cardiff-by-the-Sea Carlsbad Carmel Mountain Carmel Valley Chollas View Chula Vista City College City Heights Clairemont College Area Coronado CSU San Marcos Cuyamaca College Del Cerro Del Mar Descanso Downtown San Diego Eastlake East Village El Cajon Emerald Hills Encanto Encinitas Escondido Fallbrook Fletcher Hills Golden Hill Grant Hill Grantville Grossmont College Guatay Harbor Island Hillcrest Imperial Beach Imperial Valley Jacumba Jamacha-Lomita Jamul Julian Kearny Mesa Kensington La Jolla Lakeside La Mesa Lemon Grove Leucadia Liberty Station Lincoln Acres Lincoln Park Linda Vista Little Italy Logan Heights Mesa College Midway District MiraCosta College Miramar Miramar College Mira Mesa Mission Beach Mission Hills Mission Valley Mountain View Mount Hope Mount Laguna National City Nestor Normal Heights North Park Oak Park Ocean Beach Oceanside Old Town Otay Mesa Pacific Beach Pala Palomar College Palomar Mountain Paradise Hills Pauma Valley Pine Valley Point Loma Point Loma Nazarene Potrero Poway Rainbow Ramona Rancho Bernardo Rancho Penasquitos Rancho San Diego Rancho Santa Fe Rolando San Carlos San Marcos San Onofre Santa Ysabel Santee San Ysidro Scripps Ranch SDSU Serra Mesa Shelltown Shelter Island Sherman Heights Skyline Solana Beach Sorrento Valley Southcrest South Park Southwestern College Spring Valley Stockton Talmadge Temecula Tierrasanta Tijuana UCSD University City University Heights USD Valencia Park Valley Center Vista Warner Springs
Close

Anchor ads are not supported on this page.

This Week’s Reader This Week’s Reader