Guatemala: Fuego eruption ‘cooked people trapped in their homes’

Residents give accounts of moments after a devastating volcanic eruption that killed at least 109 people and left 197 missing.

Shocked survivors of a devastating explosive eruption of a volcano in Guatemala have said they were not warned in advance to escape a flow of hot gas and volcanic mud that consumed their villages and killed at least 109 people.

Volcan de Fuego, in southern Guatemala, began spewing streams of red-hot lava and shooting out thick smoke and ash on Sunday that rained down onto several regions and the capital, Guatemala City, 30km away from the hardest-hit area.

Nearly 200 people are still missing.

“If we would have received a warning we would have left our house [earlier] and many people’s lives would have been saved,” Denni, a survivor, told Al Jazeera.

“I don’t know about others, but they didn’t warn us. We didn’t know about the eruption until the lava was coming down.”

A communication breakdown between a disaster agency and volcanologists in Guatemala delayed evacuations as gas and ash clouds cascaded down the Fuego volcano in its most violent eruption in four decades, authorities have admitted.

However, David Ovalle, coordinator for Guatemala’s national disaster management agency (CONRED), said some residents ignored evacuation orders after sensors picked up an increase in volcanic activity hours before the eruption.

“All of the communities received warnings. And obviously, we don’t have the authority to order an evacuation,” he said.

“We make recommendations, and it’s the residents who decide whether to evacuate or not.”

Al Jazeera’s David Mercer, reporting from Escuintla, in southcentral Guatemala, said CONRED “has come under fire for possible negligence”.

Guatemala prosecutors, meanwhile, ordered an investigation into whether disaster protocols were followed.

A statement from the public ministry said the probe will seek to establish whether “the necessary protocols were activated that would allow for prudent and timely decisions”.

‘Cooked inside’

Another volcanic eruption survivor, David Melgar, said the memories of that day will haunt him and his family forever. 

His father-in-law was “swept away”, Melgar said, as hot ashes were falling inside his house. His wife along with him survived the disaster.

“The ash was boiling, mud mixed with fire. People were running and the hot ash came down on top of them, killing them,” Melgar said from a hospital where he is now receiving treatment.

“People were trapped inside their houses and couldn’t escape. They were cooked inside.”

Guatemalan authorities have now ordered new evacuations of rescue workers and villages warning of activity at the Mount Fuego and saying that it has been spewing a toxic cloud of ash and lava.

But people with missing loved ones expressed hopelessness by the suspension of search and recovery efforts.

Mexican authorities sent doctors to help survivors with severe burns, while the US government announced it was sending emergency aid to Guatemala.

Six children with severe burns were airlifted to the US to receive treatment not available in Guatemala.