MEXICO CITY – The capital had been preparing for disaster for years.
Since opening nearly a decade ago, Mexico City’s newest metro line – an heralded expansion of the Americas’ second-largest metro network – has been plagued by structural weaknesses that have led engineers to warn of potential accidents. . Yet apart from a brief partial shutdown of the line in 2014, the warnings have not been heeded by successive governments.
On Monday evening, growing problems became fatal: A subway train on the Golden Line plunged about 15 meters after a viaduct below collapsed, killing at least 24 people and injuring dozens more.
The accident – and the government’s inability to act sooner to resolve known issues with the line – immediately sparked a political storm for three of Mexico’s most powerful people: the president and the two people widely regarded as the pioneers to succeed him. as leaders of the ruling party and possibly the country.
The accident happened at 10:22 p.m. on one of the newer sections of track, Line 12, which opened in 2012. Local residents had expressed concern about the structural integrity of the viaduct, including cracks in concrete, after a powerful earthquake. parts of the city devastated in September 2017.
Workers hired to operate and maintain the metro system have made more than a dozen complaints to transport authorities over the years, all of which they say have been ignored.
“It could have been avoided,” said Homero Zavala, a representative of a union of metro workers in Mexico City. “If we workers were really listened to by this administration, a lot of problems would be avoided.”
But authorities have ignored workers’ calls for proper maintenance, he added, and some of those who spoke – including Mr Zavala – have been sacked.
Heartbreaking video of the crash showed the viaduct suddenly collapsing under a shower of sparks, sending a cloud of debris as one of the train’s carriages crashed into a vehicle on the road below.
Emergency workers rushed to access the tilted cars amid tangled wires and twisted metal, ultimately pulling dozens of people from the wreckage and transporting more than 70 injured people to hospitals. Most of the 24 people who were killed in the crash were found dead at the scene by rescue teams, officials said.
Desperate parents flocked to the scene to hear from their loved ones, while others scoured the city’s hospitals in hopes of reuniting with family members.
“I’m looking for my son”, Marisol Tapia told reporters through sobs. “I can’t find it anywhere.”
Hours later, her 13-year-old son, Brandon Giovani Hernández Tapia, was still missing.
“I’ve been to all the hospitals and they say he’s not there,” she said told reporters met at the crash site on Tuesday. “The metro was not built alone – this loophole has been around for a long time and no one has done anything.”
Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has come under fire for imposing tough budget austerity measures that have deprived capital of the money it needs to rebuild the ailing metro system while engaging in animal projects company, including nearly 1,000 miles of railroad crossing Mexico.
Shortly after taking office, he also halted construction of a half-built airport that a rival party had started building for Mexico City. Even though the government had already spent billions of dollars on the airport, Mr López Obrador scrapped it to start building another airport at a different location, redesigning the project on his behalf.
These investments have come at the expense of Mexico’s most pressing infrastructure needs, including addressing Mexico City’s water problems and its metro system, a key mode of transportation for the sprawling population of nearly 22 million people. ‘inhabitants.
In the aftermath of Monday’s disaster, two of Mr. López Obrador’s closest allies were immediately monitored: Claudia Sheinbaum, mayor of Mexico City, and Marcelo Ebrard, the foreign minister who was mayor when the news opened. underground line. The two are presumed to be the main candidates for the presidency when the one-term Mr López Obrador resigns in 2024.
The new line, which serves the working-class neighborhoods of the capital, was built by Mr. Ebrard, who was mayor of Mexico from 2006 to 2012. He has been accused by critics of rushing to complete construction before it was finished. of his tenure in an effort to strengthen his policy. heritage. Problems arose immediately.
In just the first month after the line opened, there were 60 mechanical breakdowns on trains or tracks, according to local media. Trains had to slow down on elevated sections of track because engineers feared derailments. About a year later, the city was forced to temporarily shut down part of the $ 2 billion line for repairs.
Then, after a powerful earthquake in 2017, Mexico City transport authorities reported “a structural defect” in one of the metro line’s supporting columns, which had affected its ability to carry heavy goods.
In 2018, senators from the opposition Institutional Revolutionary Party called on the authorities in Mexico City to inform Congress of irregularities in the funding of the metro line expansion. In an official party document, opposition lawmakers called the Golden Line “a symbol of corruption and misuse of public resources that prevailed under this administration.”
Lawmakers cited a congressional investigation into the faulty line which found that “the changes to the basic engineering, to the original layout with the change from subway stations to elevated stations, severely affected the technical conditions. of operation ”of the metro line.
Residents living near the crash site said government workers repaired the column shortly after the earthquake. But they expressed doubts about the quality of the rebuild, after seeing the number of downtime and maintenance issues on the line over the years.
Hernando Manon, 42, was walking home from work Monday evening when he felt a tremor and heard a loud crash a few hundred meters down the street.
“There was a roar and then sparks. The lights went out and we didn’t know what had happened. Then we heard the sirens, ”said Mr. Manon, standing a few hundred meters from the scene of the accident. “As we approached, we realized that the metro had collapsed.”
Families rushed to the scene, he said, hoping to reunite with loved ones and shouting at police demanding to pass the cordon they had erected around the wreckage.
Searchlights lit up the collapse site as search and rescue teams attempted to find survivors in the rubble. Ambulances, firefighters, the military and Mexico’s forensic department worked to find survivors and identify bodies until dawn.
A 2018-2030 metro system master plan detailed major backlogs related to track and train maintenance and warned that trains could derail on the Golden Line unless major repairs are undertaken. It is not known if these necessary repairs were ever made.
Since becoming mayor of the capital in 2018, Ms Sheinbaum, who is closely linked to the president’s search for austerity, has presided over cutting spending on the metro.
For a year, the city did not appoint a director of maintenance of metro infrastructure. Ms Sheinbaum only held the post last week.
The metro has been causing headaches to Ms. Sheinbaum for years. In 2019, several people were injured in accidents caused by mechanical problems on metro escalators, prompting the city to investigate more than 400 escalators at stations in the capital.
In March 2020, one person was killed and at least 41 others were injured when two metro trains collided in Mexico City. Then, in January, a fire raged through the metro headquarters in downtown Mexico City, killing a police officer and sending 30 others to hospital.
Opposition parties blamed the lack of maintenance for hell, and the conservative National Action Party filed a criminal complaint against Ms. Sheinbaum and the Mexico City metro chief.
At a press conference on Tuesday, Ms Sheinbaum and Mr Ebrard faced tough questions from reporters. Publicly, at least, the two political heavyweights have presented a united front.
“We agree to get to the bottom of this and work together to find the truth and find out what caused this incident,” Ms. Sheinbaum said.
“If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear,” Mr. Ebrard said. “Like everyone else, I am subject to whatever the authorities determine, but even more so as a senior official, as a promoter of the construction of the line.”