“She can’t get out!” We gazed up at the apartment building and saw an elderly lady banging on the 6th floor window. Immediately we crouched into the garage, and stepped over the debris and broken glass. “If there is an aftershock, this building is going to come down.” As we rushed up the narrow staircase, every wall was cracked. We reached the top floor and knocked. “Are you okay?!” There were three locks, each jammed. Her voice trembled: “You can’t break the door open. It’s metal.” We tried to kick the door down, then grabbed a ladder to bash it open. No luck.

September 19th, is cursed for Mexico: the first devastating earthquake happened on that day in 1985, and then again in 2017. The aftermath was apocalyptic, almost cinematic, even. When the ground broke open, I was in Math tutoring, and stepped out onto the crowded streets, where office workers searched for phone signals, and mothers held their babies in one hand and dog leashes in the other. We were hounded by helicopters, ambulances, and the drone of honking cars. And in that chaos, we dashed up a crumbling apartment tower to desperately help this lady out of her house.

“We need to get down!” I followed my teacher downstairs, feeling defeated.  As he looked for a policeman, I climbed up the balcony. The barbwire gashed open my leg, but I had to keep going. I jumped up to the terrace and saw her trembling in the living room. I found a shovel and smashed open the window. She carefully crawled out, and whispered, “How the hell are we going to get down?” I started to explain to her how we could jump down one balcony at a time. She froze and shook her head. “Wait! Over here! I think it is better to go this way!” A man shouted at us from the building rooftop next to us, and came over to help me carry the lady over the ledge into safety. My teacher and I continued to help in any way we could. We ran to the supermarket and spent all the money we had on living supplies. As we brought the supplies to “Parque México,” which was now a collection center, a man shouted to my teacher and told him to come with him. Marcus, my teacher, looked at me from a distance and waved his hand at me and told me to hurry. I asked him where were we going, and he just raised his eyebrows and shook his head. The guy took us, between the agitated crowds, all the way to the front where the police were standing before a collapsed building. He made us form a line with eight other guys. The man gave us facemasks and gloves. We couldn’t go forward without military permission. When a military man shouted, “Where are the topos!” our leader immediately waved his hand and said we were here. Marcus looked at me and said: “If you don’t want to do this we don’t have to” I asked what a “topo” was, and a guy in the line told me that we were the men who were supposed to get into the rubble and try to dig the people out. That same guy stepped out of the line. I was paralyzed for a moment. Fear took over my whole body and between all the noises, I started to shake and feel a little sick. After a couple of seconds I stared at the people crying on the streets. I saw the chaos, the intensity of the moment, and then I looked at the eight-story collapsed building. We spent six hours, nonstop, helping move the rubble.

That night as I showered, the screams and sirens rushed back to me. I remembered the clown street performer that helped me carry debris, the businessman who took off his blazer to serve water to firemen. I stepped out of the bathroom, and checked my phone. 15 unread messages. “Are you okay?” “Hey man, I’m so sorry.” “He loved you so much,” and so on.

I can’t describe the shock and pain I felt when I learned that Juan Carlos, my best childhood friend, had died—and I still can’t.

I met Juan Carlos when I was two-years-old in pre-kindergarten. He was my childhood best friend and he studied in the German school with me for fifteen years. He was a guy that everybody loved. He had a great smile; he was good-looking; he was great at sports, even though our fútbol teams were enemies. He had so much light in him, no doubt. He wanted to study Civil Engineering and got accepted in different schools, but he switched to Tecnólogico de Monterrey because he felt he would learn more there.

We are used to reading about these incidents in the newspapers or hearing them on the news, but the experience is nothing like it; it is surreal. I still can’t believe that eleven buildings collapsed around me that day and I’m still here, and Juan Carlos, who was supposed to be safe in his university, did not have my luck.

Over the next weeks everything became irrational. I didn’t know how I felt; I really wished everything were a dream, because it felt like one for a couple of days. I was overcome by helplessness, as if what I had done wasn’t enough. The satisfaction turned into guilt. It was absurd to feel good in a crisis. That day I wish I could have pulled my friend out of the rubble. The fact that I couldn’t be there to help my friend made my effort seem useless. Why couldn’t it be Juan Carlos who I helped pull out of the falling building? I suppose we don’t always get to decide how we can help. That day my help wasn’t for my loved ones, but for someone else, someone I didn’t know, someone I will never see again. At times this feels unfair. It’s a strange thing to accept, and easier to deny.

But this denial would only consume me, and keep me from moving forward.  It’s been difficult to catch a routine again, but I am doing my best to both process everything and move on after the earthquake tragedy. Instead of denial, I need more permission to feel how I need to feel. And slowly I am allowing myself to grow– just like Juan Carlos would have wanted.

Fabian Palacios is a freshman majoring in Film. He is from Mexico City.