At least 30 dead in Guatemala mudslide


Rescue workers and firemen search for survivors at the the site of a landslide in Cambray, a neighborhood in the suburb of Santa Catarina Pinula, Friday, Oct. 2, 2015. (Moises Castillo/AP Photo)

SANTA CATARINA PINULA, Guatemala — Hundreds of rescue workers using shovels and pickaxes recovered four more bodies early Saturday in the wake of a hillside collapse above a group of homes on the outskirts of the Guatemalan capital. The death toll rose to 30 amid fears that hundreds more could still be buried in the rubble.

Family members have reported at least 100 people missing after the Thursday evening mudslide. The number of missing could be as high as 600 based on at least 100 homes in the area, said Alejandro Maldonado, executive secretary of Conred, Guatemala’s emergency disaster agency. At least 36 other people have been reported injured.

After suspending work Friday evening, search efforts resumed at dawn on Saturday, said Julio Sanchez, spokesman for Guatemala’s volunteer firefighters.

At the search site, a long whistle sounded and workers stopped and listened for any sign of life under the mud and debris.

“We’re from the rescue unit,” one worker announced. “If there is someone there, please make some noise or yell.”

No response was heard and the digging continued.

Among those mourning the loss of their relatives on Saturday was Nehemias Gonzalez, who seemed to have run out of tears. He lost his 21-year-old wife, Masiel Alexandra, and their 2-year-old child, Angel Efrain.

Gonzalez said he was working at his job at a McDonald’s restaurant when the landslide occurred. He said he usually left work at 11 p.m., but that day he was given extra chores and didn’t leave until 4 a.m. Friday. It wasn’t until then that he learned about the disaster.

“The last thing she said when I called her on the telephone in the afternoon was that she loved me,” Gonzalez said, looking down at the ground. “I love her, too.”

Also at the site on Saturday was Haroldo Perez, who travelled with four other relatives from San Marcos, about 177 miles (285 kilometres) west of the capital. Armed with shovels, they were searching for his 36-year-old sister Mary Perez, a secretary they had not heard from since the mudslide.

Rescue workers labouring Friday in a frantic bid to find survivors pulled one man alive from the rubble of his collapsed home more than 15 hours after the landslide hit.

Sanchez said Friday that the dead, including two babies, were carried to an improvised morgue where weeping relatives identified the bodies. The dead included Quani Bonilla, 18, who played on the national squash team, he said.

Also among the bodies, rescuers found a mother embracing her two girls, said Carlos Turcios, a doctor who saw them when he came to help the rescue.

The hill that towers over Cambray, a neighbourhood in the suburb of Santa Catarina Pinula, about 10 miles (15 kilometres) east of Guatemala City, partly collapsed onto a 200-foot (60-meter) stretch of the hamlet just before midnight, burying an estimated 125 homes.

Raul Rodas, an assistant village mayor, said about 150 families had lived in the area where the mudslide occurred.

Some of the untouched homes in Cambray, which sits on the edge of a small river, were abandoned by their owners for fear of further mudslides.

Homemaker Dulce del Carmen Lavarenzo Pu said she had just returned from church Thursday evening when the ground shook and she heard a terrible noise. A wave of mud slid from the nearby mountainside and buried everything just 150 feet (50 metres) from her house.

“Everything went black, because the lights went out,” the 28-year-old said. “Ash and dust were falling, so we left the house. You couldn’t see anything.”

Her cousin was among those killed when the rain-sodden hillside about 300 feet (100 metres) high had collapsed onto her neighbourhood. She burst into tears upon seeing her cousin’s body brought into the morgue on Friday.

Marleni Pu, 25, stood Friday at the edge of the mudslide, her face swollen with weeping.

“My uncles, my cousins, my nieces and nephews are all there,” she said, looking across the field of debris where about two dozen relatives had lived. “Six houses where my relatives lived are all under the hillside now.”

Searchers dug out her relative, Rony Ramos, 23, who was rescued from a home near the edge of mudflow. But at its centre, the landslide buried houses under a layer of rocks and earth as much as 50 feet (15 metres) deep. He had apparently been trapped in an air pocket, face down and unable to move.

“When our personnel were searching through the rubble, they heard a voice,” said rescue worker Cecilio Chacaj. “They located the man, who was buried about two meters (six feet) under rubble.” He said rescuers worked frantically for five hours with jackhammers and saws to free Ramos.

All day Friday, restaurants brought pizza, hamburgers, coffee and bottle water for the workers, who took 30-minute shifts searching through the mud with the help of generators and overhead lights. By afternoon, some were so tired they were seen taking naps on the floor.

The municipal government said it would provide coffins for the victims.