Hundreds die in Guatemala mudslide

About 1400 Guatemalan villagers are feared dead under a huge mudslide triggered by rains from Hurricane Stan, in one of Latin America's biggest tragedies of recent years.

    The fatal quagmire crashed into the village of Panabaj

    Fire department spokesman Mario Cruz on Saturday said some 1400 people had disappeared after the fatal quagmire of mud, rocks and trees crashed down a volcano's slopes and into the Maya Indian village of Panabaj in the early hours of Wednesday.


    "There are no survivors here. It happened more than 48 hours ago. They are dead," Cruz said on Saturday.


    Diego Esquina, mayor of the Santiago Atitlan municipality that runs Panabaj, said on Friday the number of dead in the village could reach 1000.


    The village had about 4000 inhabitants before it was destroyed and over 2100 escaped to shelters, the fire department and municipal officials said.


    Dozens of corpses have already been recovered and locals were compiling names of the missing and dead, but with so many victims feared buried in up to 12 metres of mud, officials said they might abandon the search and declare the

    village a mass grave.


    Sickly smell


    Rescue workers stuffed herbs in their nostrils to block out the sickly smell of death. Others barked orders in the Mayan Tzutujil language as hundreds of men dug through the sludge with hoes, shovels and pick axes.


    "I have been working here for three days. I am crying for our brothers, sisters and children. I have never seen anything like it in my 73 years," said local peasant Manuel Rianda, tears running down his face.


    He lives in a nearby village and came to Panabaj to help look for survivors and the dead.


    The exact number of dead and
    missing is still unknown

    After hours of digging, volunteers uncovered the body of a young girl, her twisted arm poking out from under the mud.


    The deaths in Panabaj may more than triple earlier estimates of the toll of storm-related fatalities in the poor, Central American nation.


    Stan has claimed another 67 lives in El Salvador, 20 in Mexico, 10 in Nicaragua and four in Honduras.


    President Oscar Berger said the number of dead and missing across Guatemala was still unknown but the likely toll on human lives was "very alarming".


    Foreign Minister Jorge Briz said the official toll stood at 508 dead but that was likely to at least double.


    Large swaths of land in Central America and Mexico were flooded and dozens of mountain villages were hit by mudslides after days of downpours.


    Killer rain


    The storm was a low-strength Category One hurricane and soon fizzled out, but it dumped enough rain on Central America to be a killer.


    The region is particularly vulnerable to rain because so many people live in precarious, improvised dwellings dangerously close to riverbeds and on mountainsides.


    Many managed to escape, but
    others were buried alive

    Hurricane Mitch killed about 10,000 people in Central America in 1998, mostly in mudslides. Flash floods and mudslides killed a similar number in Venezuela in 1999.


    Rescue workers, struggling through roads blocked by mud, only reached Panabaj on Friday, two days after the tragedy. Until they arrived, survivors did what they could to find neighbours, friends and relatives.


    "There are no children left, there are no people left," said teacher Manuel Gonzalez, whose school was destroyed. "There were only houses here, for as far as you could see... It makes you lose hope."


    Forty other people died in the nearby hamlet of Samac.




    Guatemala's government said an initial estimate of costs from damage to crops and dead livestock was $389 million.


    "Thirty per cent of agricultural production is lost. Ten per cent of the sugar crop is gone, as well as losses in coffee. The main damage is in export products so we hope local food production is guaranteed," Agriculture Minister Alvaro Aguilar said. Agriculture makes up almost a fifth of the economy.


    "If somebody had told us to leave, maybe the people would have got out. But they said nothing. Nothing!"

    Survivor Marta Tzoc

    The tops of lamp posts and trees poked through a river of mud covering Panabaj.


    The area is popular with US and European tourists visiting nearby Lake Atitlan, a collapsed volcanic cone filled with turquoise waters.


    Many families woke in the middle of the night to rumblings from the volcano's slopes and managed to escape, but others were buried alive when a wall of mud crushed their homes a few hours later.


    "If somebody had told us to leave, maybe the people would have got out. But they said nothing. Nothing!" screamed Marta Tzoc, who grabbed her five children from their home and fled in time to safety.

    SOURCE: Reuters


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