Raising one’s fists up in the air became the generalized call for silence, a way to communicate attention and temporarily halt the activity around a specific place, a command to listen carefully and to suspend noise production. It also became a collective act, since all the rescuers involved, and many witnesses, would all stop their activities to join in the gesture and, thus, the silence. Within the loudness of the rescuing areas, the fists-up gesture accomplished the creation of a partial, momentary silence that would last a few seconds, sometimes minutes; the loudness would decrease, sounds would become quieter or stop completely, and silence could claim the space for a few moments. Some witnesses described it as “a fierce silence,” a silence completely dedicated to locating survivors, to attuning one’s ears to weak sounds of life among the ruins.
Those vital, tiny, weak, willful sounds of life under the rubble will remain at the center of my reflections on what might constitute sound, noise, and silence in a specific acoustic territory. These sounds of life presented themselves stripped of any complexity, their audibility – for human, animal and technological ears – among chaos being their only important characteristic. Everything beyond this primordial sound became noise, which I conceptualize as two kinds of noise: the usual, everyday urban noise that characterizes Mexico City and the noise emanating specifically from the rescuing areas, from the activity necessary to find survivors. Once people understood the vital need for silence and listening to find life signals, the noise of rescuing came to be heard as interference – involuntary and disruptive, unnecessary on its own, an unwanted signal, but inevitable as the result of necessary movement to modify the space and reach life – something to be aware of and to control as much as possible within the rescuing space. Silence, in its always partial, relative nature, became a crucial, willful force in opposition to the haze of urban and rescuing noise that made it difficult for life sounds to encounter the listeners.