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Guatemala digs out the dead as toll from rains, floods surges

Sunday, October 9, 2005

SANTIAGO ATITLAN, Guatemala -- Dozens of Mayan Indians used hand tools to dig through hardening mud on Saturday, searching for bodies under a landslide that swallowed a Guatemalan neighborhood and pushed the regionwide death toll from a week of pounding rains to 613.

Hardest hit was the lakeside town of Santiago Atitlan, where the side of a volcano collapsed, killing at least 208 people. Officials said the victims were among 508 people killed and another 337 missing in Guatemala.

The other 105 deaths were scattered throughout El Salvador, Mexico, Nicaragua, Honduras and Costa Rica.

The mud-spattered body of 3-year-old Mari Taxachoy Tzina was pulled Saturday from the home where she died. Her father, Gaspar, buried her in a common grave at the local cemetery.

"That's my wife, my two daughters, my son -- I'm only missing one more son," he said, explaining how he had buried almost his entire family.

"You always think about saving your family, but I couldn't," said Gaspar, a laborer who returned from work in Guatemala City to find his house gone, replaced by a blank face of mud.

Hardest hit

Guatemala has borne the brunt of heavy rains exacerbated by Hurricane Stan, which made landfall Tuesday on the Mexican Gulf Coast before quickly weakening to a tropical depression.

Governments in Central America and Mexico were still struggling Saturday to reach isolated areas devastated by flooding and landslides. Many roads had yet to be cleared.

On the banks of Lake Atitlan, a popular tourist destination, dozens of Mayan Indians swarmed over a vast bed of caked mud that covered trees and houses, looking for those still missing after Wednesday's landslide.

Primitive wooden coffins piled up in the cemetery, waiting for bodies. Villagers held sprigs of native herbs to ward off odors as they dug mass graves for bodies that likely would be buried without names.

"Entire families have disappeared," said Diego Sojuel, of the Santiago Atitlan municipal aid committee. "In some cases, there is no one that can identify the cadavers. And in other cases, it is because of the state of decomposition that we are going to have to bury them without names."

Working together

Tourists worked alongside local residents digging trenches 10-feet deep through mud strewn with bits of tin roofing, clothing, papers and bedding.

Chris Needham, 24, of London, paused to wonder aloud whether some areas might eventually have to be declared a burial ground.

"That's people's families under there," he said. "They're not going to stop digging. I wouldn't stop."

Guatemalan officials organized an air-rescue squad of their own helicopters as well as those lent by the United States and neighboring Mexico, but bad weather has limited flights.

Colombia announced Saturday it will fly in 10 tons of food, cleaning materials and first-aid equipment to help victims in Central America and Mexico.

In Mexico, President Vicente Fox visited devastated southern Chiapas state and delivered aid to hundreds living in shelters. Some victims said they still had not heard from missing family members.

"I want them to look for my brother, Leonardo Maldonado, who is 27. He lives with us, but he went to work and I haven't heard anything from him," said Maria del Carmen, an evacuee.

In Guatemala, government workers have used heavy machinery to clear fallen trees and earth from the InterAmerican Highway. The country's important Pacific coast highway remained impassable, however, after raging rivers destroyed five bridges.

A gradual disaster

The disaster started gradually in communities ringing Lake Atitlan, where creeks and rivers began spilling their banks on Wednesday as rains soaked cornfields that climb steep, deforested hillsides.

Martin Ramirez Tacaxoy, 41, a farmer, said his sister came by to wake him up to tell him the nearby river was rising.

But because the continuing rains had been so gentle, many other people went back to sleep -- until the wall of earth came.

"It was a roar, it was like an earthquake," said Ramirez Tacaxoy, who pulled out three of his neighbors, some severally wounded from mud that had buried them, in some cases up to their necks. "Some people on the edges where able to grab hold of coffee trees, and we pulled them out. But many remained underneath."

Survivors struggled to describe the thunderous roar of the mud that buried entire families.

"I saw it coming. I leaned up against the wall," Pablo Gaspar, 16, a firewood collector, said, gasping on his hospital bed after being rescued from the muck. "Then the wall collapsed on me."

He lost six family members, including both his parents.


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