Mexican rescuers have saved lives in disaster zones around the world. Now they're in Florida.

SURFSIDE, FL - June 29: Search and rescue crews are still searching for the missing persons who were in the Champlain Towers South that collapsed last week Thursday in Surfside, Florida, on Tuesday, June 29, 2021. (Photo by Octavio Jones for The Washington Post via Getty Images)
·5 min read

In the early hours of Sept. 19, 1985, a roar woke millions of residents in the vast urban sprawl of Mexico City as a magnitude-8.1 earthquake rattled the city, toppling hundreds of buildings and trapping thousands of people under piles of rubble.

To help deal with the widespread devastation, a group of volunteers rushed to the collapsed houses and buildings across the city, and particularly to a working-class neighborhood to help overwhelmed authorities search for and rescue victims.

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Los Topos, Spanish for "the moles," was born then as a group of volunteers who offer rescue efforts and emergency relief wherever help is needed. The group has since been involved in virtually every major natural disaster in Mexico and many others around the world, and it has splintered into several different groups over the years.

Video: Rescuer details searching for signs of life in Surfside condo collapse

Heroes at home, Los Topos Azteca arrived Monday in South Florida, joining local firefighters and other teams of experts in taking on the colossal task of combing through hillocks of rubble and concrete chunks in search of life after a condominium building along the beachfront of Surfside, Fla., collapsed Thursday. At least 12 people have been confirmed dead and 149 are still missing.

Los Topos Azteca's presence underlines the international element of the collapsed condo, where many residents were from other countries, as well as of the rescue efforts. On Sunday, the director of emergency management for Florida welcomed a team of 10 Israel Defense Forces members to help with search-and-rescue efforts.

Héctor Méndez, one of the most seasoned members of Los Topos Azteca, Mexico's rescue brigade of about 10 volunteers that arrived, said in an interview Tuesday that the team had not yet started to work at the collapse site as it waited for authorization from local authorities.

"We just want to help," he said.

Méndez said his experience in several natural disasters around the world - the first being the 1985 earthquake in Mexico City, where he rescued three people from the rubble - shaped his life and solidified his will to help others whenever - and wherever - tragedy strikes.

Méndez, a 74-year-old accountant, said the Topos brigade has participated in rescue efforts in more than 70 operations across five continents - including 2010′s collapse of a mine in Chile, tsunami in Indonesia and earthquake in Haiti, as well as the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center.

"When you have seen death and have had the opportunity to rescue someone . . . that instinct inside of you to preserve the human race just awakens," he said.

"It changes your life," he said.

And he has helped changed others' lives, too.

Michael Birch first heard of the Mexican rescuers in 2010, when he learned they were looking for his brother at the Hotel Montana in Port-au-Prince, which had collapsed along with thousands of other buildings after a 7-magnitude earthquake struck outside Haiti's capital, killing more than 300,000 people by official estimates.

"They were inside immediately and searched and stayed until all the people in the hotel were found," Birch said in an interview. After a month-long rescue-and-recovery mission, they found the remains of Birch's brother, Jim, who was in Haiti on a work trip.

"I shudder emotionally thinking what would have happened to my family had it not been for Topos," Birch said, "if Jim had just been another number of the thousands to disappear in Haiti because we could have spent the rest of our lives thinking he might be alive, somewhere."

Birch said the experience had such an effect on him that he decided to train to become a Topo in Mexico and pay it forward. In 2017, he joined the volunteers in Mexico City, where a magnitude-7.1 tremor leveled dozens of buildings and killed more than 230 people, including 30 children.

Clad in bright orange jumpsuits and helmets, the volunteers would lift their arms in the air with closed fists in a sign that meant the gathering crowds should remain silent at moments when they had heard a noise that could come from a buried survivor.

Mexicans would cheer when they arrived at a scene, and some serenaded them with a Mariachi band surrounding a collapsed site, to either thank them for their tireless work or to encourage them to keep going after days-long operations.

Birch recalled being side-by-side with the volunteers who seven years earlier had found his brother's body.

"Helping them and being a part of those efforts was for me healing my heart, a way of saying thank you," he said through tears.

Last year, a massive mudslide caused by rainfall from Hurricane Eta swallowed dozens of homes in the village of Quejá, in Guatemala, killing more than 50 people.

Los Topos Azteca flew in.

"To see them move and dig through the debris was just impressive, especially given the devastation of the area," said Paulo Bolaños, a K-9 trainer who was there as part of the local rescue teams. Bolaños said he was particularly amazed by their ability to crawl under the rubble and through small spaces.

There are more than 300 members of Topos Azteca. They come from different walks of life and backgrounds but all share the willingness to put their lives at risk for others, and they have qualifications including disaster-relief training and basic EMT training. Many work as full-time firefighters, members of the brigade said. While most members are based in Mexico, Los Topos Azteca now includes people from more than a dozen countries.

Méndez says the team is eager to bring its expertise and help the anguished community of Surfside continue its rescue efforts.

Isai Galvan, a Mexico-based member of Los Topos Azteca whose training involved rescues in collapsed structures, said one of the great challenges during this Florida mission is the extensive volume of debris and rubble. It will require a meticulous and precise operation to avoid inflicting more damage with heavy machinery before authorities announce that they have changed their focus from rescue to recovery.

Whatever the obstacles - and perils - of the mission, Mexico's Topos are willing to die trying.

"We believe in fate, we believe that some people are destined to die and others to survive, but there is always life and we will look for it, no matter what," Galvan said.

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