The tragedy immediately took on political overtones, because the officials most associated with the subway’s Line 12 — Mayor Claudia Sheinbaum and Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard — are considered top contenders to succeed President Andrés Manuel López Obrador when his term ends in 2024. Ebrard oversaw the building of the so-called Golden Line a decade ago, when he served as mayor.
Opposition politicians called for an investigation and the punishment of any officials of the ruling Morena party found responsible for the disaster.
“The politicians of Morena kill people through their corruption and bad decisions. We saw it with the terrible management of the pandemic, and now we see it with the tragedy on the metro,” said Marko Cortés, head of the National Action Party.
City officials said the collapse was apparently caused by a support beam that buckled. They said there had been no sign of problems in the overpasses on Line 12, which had been inspected in January 2020. Sheinbaum pledged to bring in international experts to study what happened, and to support an independent investigation to identify and punish any wrongdoing.
“Residents of the city, you can be sure we will get to the bottom of this,” she declared.
The disaster happened at 10:22 p.m. Monday near the Olivos station in the working-class neighborhood of Tláhuac in the southeastern part of the city. Alejandro Porcayo, 21, a passenger, was looking at his cellphone when the metro car jerked violently to a stop and plunged over the edge.
“People fell on top of me, I fell on top of others,” he told the Televisa network. “When I got over my shock, the first thing I thought about was getting out of there. I escaped through a door that was half-open and jumped.”
He said he felt relief at having survived. “The blood that’s on my shirt was from a person who lost his hand,” he said. “It just went flying.”
Adolfo Ángel Ibarra, 21, was traveling home from work on a small bus past the Olivos metro station when he heard a horrible crash.
“We turned around to see it because we thought it was a normal car, but as soon as the dust cleared we could see what it was. It was just stunning,” he said. The 21-year-old said he and other passersby rushed to pry open a door on one of the fallen metro cars.
Emergency workers, police and bystanders worked frantically to free riders trapped inside the trains. Teary family members converged on the site, looking for missing relatives, some as young as 13.
Rescuers saved one person from a car trapped on the road beneath the overpass. Family members said the driver of another vehicle, a 34-year-old construction worker, was crushed, although his wife escaped. Seventy-nine people were treated at hospitals for injuries.
“We still haven’t had a good explanation why there have been so many problems with this metro line,” said Eulalio López, 44, a bus driver in Tláhuac who was watching the cleanup Tuesday. “I remember the rails were such a problem that the trains had to travel slowly because there were fears they were going to derail.”
The accident was one of the worst in the 54-year history of the subway, the second-largest metro system in North America, after New York City’s network. The Mexico City metro, with its subsidized 25-cent fares and sprawling reach, is essential to many of the 20 million people in the metropolitan area. But it has long been plagued by maintenance problems, crime and overcrowding.
No part of the system has been more controversial than Line 12, the newest part of the metro system. Its construction wound up running hundreds of millions of dollars over budget. In 2014, less than two years after it was inaugurated, the stations on the elevated portion of the line were closed because the rails were worn down. They didn’t reopen for more than a year while repairs were done. The line suffered further damage in a 7.1-magnitude earthquake in 2017.
“All this history speaks to a lack of capacity from the moment of construction, and negligence in maintenance and supervision,” said Pablo Montes, the anti-corruption coordinator at the Mexican Institute for Competitiveness, a think tank.
Line 12 was Ebrard’s signature infrastructure project when he served as Mexico City’s mayor from 2006 to 2012. Ebrard is widely regarded as a savvy political operator, and as foreign minister is now a key interlocutor with Washington.
Facing mounting criticism after the metro accident, he took to Twitter, offering to help in the investigation. “He who acts with integrity has nothing to fear,” he told reporters.
The accident also raises questions about Sheinbaum’s stewardship. The budget for the metro has been cut by millions of dollars since she came into office, according to Montes — part of an austerity drive championed by López Obrador. They mayor has denied reducing the budget, and pointed to her work modernizing older metro lines.
Following the disaster, the metro workers’ union said 8,000 employees were planning to walk off the job soon to protest poor working conditions and insufficient maintenance in the subway system.
Sheinbaum and Ebrard are seen as top contenders to be the ruling party’s candidate in the next presidential elections, in 2024.
López Obrador remains relatively popular despite a severe economic recession and more than 300,000 deaths in the coronavirus pandemic. The opposition is fragmented and weakened by years of corruption scandals, so is unlikely to have the power to force the resignations of any current senior officials over the disaster. But midterm elections are looming in June, and the president is hoping to expand his legislative majority.
López Obrador expressed his condolences and support for Mexico City’s government and Sheinbaum, widely regarded as his protege. Sheinbaum said flags would fly at half-staff on city government buildings and in the central Zocalo, to mourn those lost in the nation’s latest tragedy.
It was the second major accident for Mexico City’s metro system this year. In January, a fire broke out at a downtown substation, leaving one person dead and shutting down several major lines for weeks. Before the pandemic, around 4.6 million people traveled on the metro each day.
Line 12 extends from Mixcoac, in the west of the city, to Tláhuac, in the southeast.
Erin Cunningham and Miriam Berger in Washington contributed to this report.