Image: Helmets and caps of "Topos" are seen atop the 1985 earthquake's memorial
Marco Ugarte  /  AP
Helmets and caps of "Topos" are seen atop the 1985 earthquake's memorial, during a ceremony to commemorate its 25th anniversary in Mexico City, Sunday, on Sept. 19.
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updated 9/19/2010 2:09:11 PM ET 2010-09-19T18:09:11

In solemn ceremonies and Roman Catholic masses, Mexico City commemorated the 25th anniversary Sunday of an 8.1-magnitude earthquake that killed as many as 10,000 people and sparked an outpouring of civic action that many say helped lead the nation to democracy.

At the downtown square where the Hotel Regis toppled in 1985, a line of ambulances and patrol cars marked the moment by turning on their sirens; the hotel was never rebuilt, and the square is now known as Solidarity Park.

But it was all silence at the humble monument erected at the site of the collapsed Nuevo Leon apartment building, where hundreds died. An elderly woman lit votive candles for her dead children, and survivors placed colorful floral wreaths at the low benches built in a circle around the site.

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Cuauhtemoc Abarca, 53, who at the time was a neighborhood leader for residents of the Tlatelolco housing complex, recalled hearing the sound of shattering glass as the earth shook violently.

"I turned toward the Nuevo Leon and I saw that it was collapsing, first like a sandwich, and then twisting and falling," said Abarca. "I saw but couldn't believe it, and then a cloud of dust went up."

After the quake, as government officials, army troops and police dithered — seemingly unprepared for the disaster and more interested in cordoning off collapsed buildings than in searching for survivors — neighbors organized rescue teams to pull victims from the rubble.

Abarca, who went on to a career as a community activist and helped in relief efforts for Haiti's Jan. 12 earthquake that killed as many as 300,000, said the activism awakened by the Mexico City quake is still alive.

"There is more participation in general, in a lot of aspects," he said. "But the government has dedicated itself to dispersing it, creating smoke screens, to act as if it was listening."

Mexico's early declarations that it did not need international aid is thought by many to have contributed to the eventual downfall of the long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, which lost the presidency in 2000 for the first time in seven decades.

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