Time running out to find survivors of Guatemala volcano eruption

06 Jun 2018 | Canada
Time running out to find survivors of Guatemala volcano eruption

Authorities cautiously resumed search and rescue operations Wednesday in towns and villages devastated by the eruption of Guatemala's Fuego volcano, but time was quickly running out to find survivors of a disaster that has killed at least 75 people and left nearly 200 missing. 

Thousands of people displaced by the eruption have sought refuge in shelters, many of them with dead or missing loved ones and facing an uncertain future, unable to return to homes destroyed by the volcano.

Firefighters said the chance of finding anyone alive amid the steaming terrain was practically nonexistent 72 hours after the volcanic explosion on Sunday. The thick grey ash covering the stricken region was hardened by rainfall, making it even more difficult to dig through the mud, rocks and debris that reached to the rooftops of homes.

"Nobody is going to be able to get them out or say how many are buried here," said Efrain Suarez, 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 already charred," the 59-year-old truck driver said. "And if heavy machinery comes in, they will be torn apart."

Once a verdant collection of canyons, hillsides and farms, the area was reduced to a moonscape of ash by the avalanche of fast-moving molten rock, mud and debris. Rescue workers poked metal rods into the ground, sending clouds of smoke pouring into the air — a sign of the super-hot temperatures still below the surface, which firefighters said reached as high as 400 and 700 C in some places.

"We can only work in places where we can stand on the roofs of houses … because the ash is very hot. There are places where you stick the pickaxe or rod in and we see a lot of smoke coming out and fire, and it's impossible to keep digging because we could die," said rescuer Diego Lorenzana, 25.

At a shelter in the Murray D. Lincoln school in the city of Escuintla, about 15 kilometres from the volcano's peak, Alfonso Castillo said he and his extended family of 30 had lived on a shared plot in Los Lotes where each family had its own home. 

Everyone was accustomed to the volcano, one of Central America's most active, rumbling and spewing smoke, the 33-year-old farm worker said, so at first nothing seemed abnormal on Sunday. But then a huge cloud of ash came pouring out. 
"In a matter of three or four minutes the village disappeared," Castillo said, smothered in what he described as a "sea" of muck that came crashing into homes, inundating people, pets and wildlife.

A day after a new evacuation was ordered due to increasing activity by the volcano, a red alert remained in place for the
areas of Escuintla, Sacatepequez and Chimaltenango, and people were advised not to linger near the affected zones. 

Authorities warned that the rain had also increased the chance of deadly flows of ash, mud and debris. 

The recovery effort was slow, with only nine bodies recovered on Wednesday, according to local media reports. 

A man whose rescue in the town of El Rodeo was shown on video as he was pulled out caked in mud with third-degree burns over 50 per cent of his body died at a hospital Wednesday, according to the country's Social Security Institute.

The official death toll, which stood at more than 75, was sure to rise.

President Jimmy Morales travelled to El Rodeo by helicopter Wednesday to survey the destruction. 

In past disasters where authorities determined there was no chance of finding survivors and further efforts to recover bodies would be too difficult, areas have been declared burial sites, the final resting place of the victims. 

Asked about that possibility in this disaster, Sergio Cabanas, director of disaster agency Conred, said: "Not until the search efforts are over, and it would be left up to the people."

"We are analyzing the terrain," said David de Leon, spokesperson for the disaster agency Conred.

The agency has said 1.7 million people have been affected by the volcanic eruption — Fuego volcano's biggest in four decades — and over 12,000 have been evacuated from the area.