Rescuers battle heat and wet as death toll climbs
Troublesome rain and more volcanic activity are hindering search and rescue efforts around Guatemala’s Volcan de Fuego, but when teams have been able to work in the hardest hit areas the death toll has continued to rise.
Efforts were cut short again yesterday when a downpour forced teams to retreat for fear of mudslides. Boiling water flowing down the volcano’s slopes from dangerously hot volcanic gas and ash also posed a threat. A day earlier, flows of super-heated volcanic material forced crews to pull back.
But between s t oppages, search teams working with shovels and heavy equipment f ound more bodies f r om Monday’s big eruption. Remains were loaded into body bags and carried out on stretchers.
Guatemala’s National Institute of Forensic Sciences raised the death toll to 99 yesterday, an increase of 24 bodies for the day. Only 28 of the total had been identified. At least 197 people were listed as missing.
“Nobody is going to be able to get them out or say how many are buried here,” Efrain Suarez said, standing amid the smoking holes dotting what used to be the village of San Miguel Los Lotes on the flanks of the mountain. “The bodies are al r eady charred,” the 59-year-old truck driver said. “And if heavy machinery comes in they will be torn apart.”
Rescuers poked metal rods into the ground, sending clouds of smoke pouring into the air in a s i gn t hat s uper- hot temperatures remain below the surface. Firefighters said they reached as high as 700C.
At a shelter in the Murray D. Lincoln school in the city of Escuintla, about 15km from the volcano’s peak, Alfonso Castillo said he and his extended family of 30 had lived on a shared plot in San Miguel Los Lotes where each family had its own home.
“In a matter of three or four minutes t he vi l l age di s appeared,” Castillo said. It was smothered in what he described as a “sea” of muck.
The family holed up in a house that heated up “like a boiler” inside, he said, then made their way onto the roof and then to the upper story of another, concrete home. After a cellphone call to Castillo’s brother, rescuers arrived and took the family to safety.
But the life they knew was gone.
Rescue workers have saved farm animals as they have searched for survivors from Monday’s eruption. PHOTO/AP