President López Obrador promptly left the building when the earthquake alarm sounded Thursday morning due to a 5.7-magnitude quake in Veracruz, but reporters gathered in the National Palace for the president’s news conference were ordered to remain seated and didn’t start to evacuate for 2 1/2 minutes.
“Let’s go,” López Obrador said shortly after the alarm began at approximately 8:40 a.m., while reporters and other media workers sprang to their feet ready to exit the building.
A Civil Protection official quickly threw a wrench in their plans, ordering them to stay calm and sit down.
“Sit down, prepare your things please. Seated please,” the official said into a microphone. “Now we’re going to evacuate. Remain seated please. Sit down, sit down,” he added, before a lengthy period of silence ensued.
The official finally gave instructions to evacuate the building and the reporters started doing so a full 150 seconds after the alarm began. Another minute passed before most of the reporters, photographers and camera operators had left the room where López Obrador holds his weekday morning press conferences.
Mexico City’s earthquake alarm, amplified through loudspeakers situated across the capital, usually sounds about a minute before a quake begins to be felt, although the time varies depending on the epicenter. It gives residents a brief window of opportunity to evacuate to the safety of the street and thus avoid the risk of being caught in a building that collapses.
According to a Mexico City government guide, people inside a building should promptly evacuate when the alarm sounds provided they are on a lower floor. The Treasury Room where AMLO’s morning pressers are held is on the ground floor, and opens onto the National Palace’s central courtyard, to which reporters eventually evacuated to find government officials already there.
“It was a bad decision to tell them to sit in their place,” said Fernando Torres, a civil protection trainer who works for a private company.
“The right thing is to retreat to areas of lower risk … so it wasn’t appropriate for the journalists to remain seated,” he said.
However, the civil protection chief of the president’s office defended the decision to instruct reporters to remain in their seats.
Marco Antonio Mosqueda told reporters that the Treasury Room protocol is to remain in place as the alarm sounds and while the earth is moving and to evacuate only after the ground stops shaking.
“We’re not exposed to anything here,” he said, apparently referring to the structural integrity of the National Palace. “Or did you see something?”
Mosqueda didn’t explain why López Obrador and other officials didn’t follow the same protocol.
A message posted to the Gobierno de México Twitter account, the official account of the president’s office, said that “each building within the National Palace has its own protocol and the structures are periodically checked by Cenapred” – the National Disaster Prevention Center.
Contradicting the Mexico City government advice, Cenapred’s deputy director of earthquake risks told the newspaper El País that staying in place is not an unreasonable protocol given that the Treasury Room is on the ground floor.
“I don’t know what the characteristics of the conference room are, but if there is no danger of objects falling, you can recommend that the attendees stay inside,” Jonatán Arreola Manzano said.
However, he subsequently acknowledged that the best thing people can do if they are on the ground floor of a building is to go outside to a place where there is no risk of objects falling on top of them.
“On the 17th floor there’s no time to evacuate. The best thing is to look for a place where you can take shelter,” Arreola said.
“It’s a personal decision to leave immediately or to put yourself in a safe place [inside],” he added, although the reporters were prevented from exercising their own judgement.
Fortunately, no damage was reported after Thursday’s quake, whose epicenter was in southern Veracruz.