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Years of ignored warnings. Then the subway crash in Mexico City was scared.


MEXICO CITY – The capital has been preparing for the disaster for years.

Since opening nearly a decade ago, Mexico City’s newest subway line – an announced expansion of America’s second largest subway system – has been plagued by structural weaknesses that warned engineers of potential accidents. Apart from a brief, partial shutdown in 2014, warnings from successive governments went unnoticed.

On Monday evening, assembly problems became fatal: A subway train on the Golden Line fell about 50 feet after collapsing an overpass underneath, killing at least 24 people and injuring dozens more.

The accident – and the government’s failure to act sooner to fix known issues with the line – immediately sparked a political firestorm for three of the most powerful people in Mexico: the president and the two people who were widely believed to be they are pioneers for his succession as leaders of the ruling party and possibly of the country.

The crash occurred at 10:22 p.m. on one of the newest sections of the route, Line 12, which was inaugurated in 2012. Local residents had concerns about the structural integrity of the overpass, including cracks in the concrete, following a major earthquake that destroyed parts of the city in September 2017.

Workers hired to operate and maintain the metro system have filed over a dozen complaints with transportation authorities over the years, which they said have all been ignored.

“This could have been avoided,” said Homero Zavala, a representative of a metro workers union in Mexico City. “If we workers in this government were really listened to, a lot of problems would be avoided.”

But authorities ignored workers’ demands for adequate maintenance, he added, and some of those who spoke out – including Mr Zavala – have been sacked.

A harrowing video of the accident showed the overpass suddenly collapsing in a shower of sparks and kicking up a cloud of debris when one of the wagons crashed into a vehicle on the street below.

Rescue workers struggled to gain access to the tipped wagons sandwiched between tangled wires and twisted metal. Eventually they pulled dozens of people out of the rubble and transported more than 70 people to hospitals with injuries. Most of the 24 people killed in the crash were found dead on site by rescue workers, officials said.

Desperate relatives flocked to the scene for news of their loved ones, while others searched city hospitals in hopes of finding their family members.

“I’m looking for my son,” Marisol Tapia told reporters by sobbing. “I can’t find him anywhere.”

Hours later, her 13-year-old son, Brandon Giovani Hernández Tapia, was still missing.

“I went to all the hospitals and they say he’s not there,” she said told reporters gathered at the crash site on Tuesday. “The subway wasn’t built alone – this mistake has been there for a long time and no one has done anything.”

Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has been criticized for imposing severe austerity measures that have starved the capital of the money needed to rebuild the troubled metro system.

Shortly after taking office, he also stopped the construction of a half-built airport that a rival party had built for Mexico City. Although the government had already spent billions of dollars on the airport, Mr López Obrador scrapped it to build another airport in a different location and re-launched the project on his behalf.

These investments came at the expense of Mexico’s more pressing infrastructure needs, including addressing Mexico City’s water problems and the metro system, a vital means of transport for the sprawling capital’s nearly 22 million residents.

After Monday’s disaster, two of Mr López Obrador’s closest allies were immediately scrutinized: Claudia Sheinbaum, the mayor of Mexico City, and Marcelo Ebrard, the foreign minister who was mayor when the new metro line opened. Both are considered top candidates for the presidency when Mr López Obrador, who is limited to one term, resigns in 2024.

The new line, which serves the capital’s working-class neighborhoods, was built by Mr. Ebrard, who was Mayor of Mexico from 2006 to 2012. He was accused by critics of rushing to complete construction before his term ended in an attempt to bolster his legacy policies. Problems arose immediately.

In the first month after the inauguration of the line, there were 60 mechanical failures in trains or on the tracks, according to local media. The trains had to drive more slowly over elevated sections of the route because the engineers feared derailments. About a year later, the city had to temporarily shut down part of the $ 2 billion line for repairs.

After a major earthquake in 2017, Mexico City’s transportation authorities reported “a structural failure” in one of the subway line’s support columns that had compromised its ability to support heavy weights.

In 2018, senators from the opposition Institutional Revolutionary Party urged the Mexico City authorities to notify Congress of irregularities in funding the expansion of the metro line. In an official party document, opposition lawmakers called the golden line a “symbol of the corruption and abuse of public funds that prevailed during this government”.

The legislature cited a congressional investigation into the faulty line, in which it was found that “the changes to the basic technology, to the original arrangement with the change from underground stations to elevated stations, severely impaired the technical operating conditions of the underground line” .

Residents near the accident site said government workers repaired the pillar shortly after the earthquake. However, they expressed doubts about the quality of the rebuild after seeing how many downtimes and maintenance issues the line had seen over the years.

42-year-old Hernando Manon was walking home from work Monday night when he felt a shiver and heard a loud crash a few hundred meters up the street.

“There was a rumble and then sparks. The lights went out and we didn’t know what happened. Then we heard the sirens, ”said Mr. Manon, standing only a few hundred meters from the scene of the accident. “As we approached, we found that the subway had collapsed.”

Families rushed to the scene, he said, hoping to find loved ones, and yelled at the police, who were demanding to be let through the cordon they had put up around the wreck.

Floodlights lit the site of the collapse as search and rescue teams tried to find survivors in the rubble. Ambulances, firefighters, the military and Mexico’s forensic departments worked until dawn to find survivors and identify the bodies.

A master plan for the 2018-2030 metro system listed key backlogs in the maintenance of tracks and trains and warned that trains on the Golden Line could be derailed if major repairs were not carried out. It is unclear whether these necessary repairs were ever made.

Since she became mayor of the capital in 2018, Ms. Sheinbaum, who is closely linked to the president’s drive for austerity, has led cuts in spending on the metro system.

For a year the city did not appoint a director for the maintenance of the infrastructure for the subway system. Ms. Sheinbaum only cast the role last week.

The subway has given Ms. Sheinbaum a headache for years. In 2019, several people were injured in accidents caused by mechanical problems on subway escalators. This prompted the city to investigate more than 400 escalators in train stations across the capital.

In March 2020, one person was killed and at least 41 others injured when two subways collided in Mexico City. Then, in January, a fire broke through the subway headquarters in downtown Mexico City, killing one police officer and sending 30 more to the hospital.

Opposition parties blamed the inferno for lack of maintenance, and the conservative National Action Party filed a criminal complaint against Ms. Sheinbaum and the Mexico City subway manager.

At a press conference on Tuesday, both Ms. Sheinbaum and Mr. Ebrard were heavily questioned by reporters. At least in public, the two political heavyweights presented a united front.

“We agree to get to the bottom of this and work together to find out the truth and know what caused this incident,” said Ms. Sheinbaum.

“If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear,” said Mr. Ebrard. “Like everyone else, I am subject to what the authorities specify, but above all as a high-ranking official, as someone who promoted the construction of the line.”



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