It was Sunday morning, March 10. The engineer Manuel Martínez and his thirteen-year-old son were coming back to their apartment on the 7th floor of a building in La Urbina neighborhood, in Caracas. Just after they got in the elevator, there was a blackout that left them caught halfway between two floors. Neighbors rushed to help. They saved the teenager, but Martínez, trying to step out, fell to the bottom.
Pictures: Martha Viaña / Family album
There is a sudden alert. Something has changed. As if everything had been paralyzed outside or the buzzing of life had ceased. During the day, before checking if the light of a device has stopped shining, people know when the blackout has begun because a dense silence hangs over them as if their blood had stopped flowing.
That is what Ester felt (let’s call her this to respect her request to protect her identity) when the electricity went out in the Residencias Boulevard building, on Avenida Principal, in La Urbina neighborhood, in the east of Caracas. Another blackout! At that moment, Manuel, her uncle, had to be in the elevator on his way to the 7th floor, where her apartment is located.
It was 11 in the morning on Sunday, March 10. It was a bright day and the residents of the area felt relief because the electricity had returned the previous day, after being interrupted in almost the entire country since mid-afternoon on Thursday 7. Until then, they had not only been in the dark, but also cut off from their family and friends, and fearful of the food being damaged in the freezer. That Sunday, the whole family had shared breakfast. They were all together, except for Manuel’s eldest son, a 28-year-old lawyer who does not live with them. Manuel, his wife Vilma, their 13-year-old son, the baby who would complete his first year the following week and Ester, Vilma’s niece, who had lived with the couple since she was a teenager. Manuel was like an adoptive father for her. A good and understanding father.
After breakfast, Manuel said he would go down to the shopping center that was in front of the building and asked them if they needed anything. He went to the bathroom to wash himself and get dressed. Even if it was only to cross the street, the engineer born in Barquisimeto was unable to leave his house in the sweatpants in which he slept and sat at the table on Sunday mornings. He came out shaved, perfumed and dressed in street clothes, neat and well ironed. He asked his son to accompany him. Ester was in the kitchen doing the dishes when she heard the clink of keys and the door closing behind them. The apartment was submerged in the sound of water, the chirping of the baby and the voice of Vilma, who was talking on the phone in her room.
A normal day that would be shattered in minutes.
Manuel Pastor Martínez had graduated from the Barquisimeto Polytechnic. He worked all his life as an engineer for the Caracas Metro, an institution that often sent him to France to gain experience. He even became vice president of the company twice. His family says that he had such attachment to the capital’s subway that “there was not a train moving without him knowing it”. All conversations with him drifted towards the Metro. Several times he took Ester and his children to visit the system’s facilities: the maintenance yard in Propatria and Bello Monte station, of which he had been chief engineer when it was built.
“A lot of what the Metro was, when it was at its best, was thanks to him,” says Esther without hesitation.
One day Manuel received the terrible news that he had been retired. For 32 years he had been working for the Caracas Metro, but he did not expect to receive a letter like that. There had been a change in the board of directors and the incoming board had made the decision to retire him. That was a very strong blow for him. He went from spending all day giving answers to a thousand requests on several phones to no one calling him anymore.
Ester, who was outraged by what she considered an early retirement and a politically motivated one, would, however, benefit from the new situation. Her uncle not only dedicated more time to his own children but also to her, who had already begun to study law. She found in her uncle an ideal assistant to review the class notes at home.
Manuel called her “doctor” since she entered the faculty. He had promised her that when she graduated they would make a great toast with Coca Cola light, which was the drink he liked the most.
“He didn’t just help me study. We had serious discussions and even strong arguments. Next week I have an exam. I don’t know who I’m going to study with”, says Ester.
Ester was humming one of those “old” boleros that her uncle Manuel used to sing to the baby to make her sleep, when that paralysis of the world occurred, as if the wind had decided to tiptoe. She waited a moment to see if it was a blink of the electrical flow. After the return of the service, electricity had experienced downturns and on several occasions they feared that it would be another blackout. Very upset, Esther realized that it was another power failure. She was thinking what she had to disconnect first when she realized that at that moment Manuel and his 13-year-old son should be coming back up inside the elevator. She left the apartment at full speed and had hardly gone down a couple of floors when she heard the neighbors’ voices.
Manuel Martínez and his son were inside the elevator when it went dark and stopped. Some neighbors turned up when they heard Manuel’s cries. It was evident that the elevator had stopped between floors 3 and 4.
The first impulse of the neighbors was to call the firemen, but there was no electricity, so the cell phones had no signal. Someone had a landline and ran to dial 911, but there was no answer. They decided then to open the doors by force, at least until a space was cleared through which a person could fit. When they opened the doors, they found out that the floor of the elevator was about 40 centimeters from the ceiling.
Helped by Manuel, his 13-year-old son went out, feet first, and the neighbors helped him out. As soon as the boy was safe, they encouraged Manuel to do the same. He sat on the floor of the elevator and pushed himself with his hands. The neighbors tried to hold him down, as they had just done with the boy, but Manuel told them it was not necessary. Ester saw her uncle’s legs swinging from the elevator, and thought that in a minute he would step on the ground and all that nightmare would be over.
She turned to her cousin to ask, “Are you okay?” And when she turned back toward the elevator she saw a frightening movement. Fast as lightning. Manuel pushed himself and, instead of falling into the corridor, he rushed into the pit that seemed to swallow him in an instant.
The elevator had no skirting, which is a protective galvanized sheet not visible from the outside that goes under the elevator. This device would have prevented engineer Martínez from crashing to the basement. At that time, almost all the residents of the tower were there. They all ran down the stairs. Someone went in his car to look for the firemen, and someone else went to the parking lot with the idea of having his car ready to take Manuel to the hospital. But when they managed to open the grate that closes the bottom of the elevator shaft, it was too late.
The firemen arrived with the neighbor, who had made the journey at full speed. But they could not do more than take him out. Manuel’s hands were stained with grease from the cables and crossed with bleeding wounds. He had tried to hold on. He had died instantly. He was 58 years old and still had the hope to live some day in a country that would allow him to start over.
In the middle of a silence as thick as the velvet curtain of an old theatre, the firemen took the body of Manuel Martínez from the building where he had lived, and where he had just died, to take him to the morgue.
When Ester returned to the apartment on the 7th floor, the first thing she saw was the half-open door of the bathroom. In one of the corners, unconcerned and still with the shape of his knees, were the sweatpants that Manuel Martínez had taken off to go, very elegantly dressed, to his appointment with death.
Translated by Raquel Rivas Rojas. Edited by Katie Brown.