Pola Díaz Moffitt walks into the wood-paneled seafood restaurant here on a recent afternoon, everyone on staff pauses to greet her. Ms. Moffitt, donning a white medical mask around her neck, black plastic elbow and knee pads over her clothes, and a walkie-talkie poking out from her shirt collar, has been working in volunteer search and rescue for eight days straight across the street. A seven-story office building had crumbled to the ground during a 7.1 earthquake, trapping scores of people. It’s one of nearly 40 buildings that flattened across the city, killing an estimated 228 people.
Moffitt is a topo, or mole, a term for the citizen rescuers that burrow deep into rubble to search for victims. She and nine other members of the Topos Adrenalina group arrived on the scene here 40 minutes after the earth stopped moving and stayed until Oct. 4, when the final known victim’s body was removed from the debris.
Moffit found her emotionally and physically grueling calling in 1985, when Mexico suffered it’s most devastating earthquake that left thousands dead and hundreds of buildings crushed to the ground. That’s when the topos were formed. . Since then, Moffitt, one of the first female topos, has traveled to dozens of countries and disasters, ranging from earthquakes in El Salvador and Haiti, and New York City’s Twin Towers She explains, “People enter the rubble like little fish. They are swimming, moving themselves through paths we’ve found or created,” They shimmy through a tight space, as deep as 100 feet. Topos are skilled in recognizing where wreckage can safely be moved without shifting the entire collapse site, which could put buried survivors at more risk. “When you’re inside a tunnel, you search with your ears, with your voice “Your hearing becomes concentrated. You isolate all the outside noises so you can determine what you’re hearing: someone breathing softly, a groan, any sign of life.”
“My motivation is to find one life. That alone keeps me going,” Moffitt says. But being able to return a body to a family “is just as important.” It allows a family to start the long process of grief . During the 30 years of this work, , Moffitt herself has become a mother and a grandmother. And despite the risk, her dedication and drive haven’t faltered. She considers herself lucky to have the support of her family. All of the city’s various topos groups are “100 percent volunteer,” Moffitt says. They receive no government support, and most volunteers have day jobs. Support is also given through fundraisers She said, “ All I feel is thanks, “