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Guatemala village devastated in mudslide tragedy

October 7, 2005

By Frank Jack Daniel

PANABAJ, Guatemala (Reuters) – In tragic scenes, Maya
Indians and rescue teams pulled 64 bodies from a mudslide in a
Guatemalan village, the worst single tragedy from flooding that
killed over 240 people in Central America and Mexico.

Firemen in muddied, red uniforms carried a child’s corpse
covered only by a banana plant leaf on a makeshift stretcher of
tree branches at the village of Panabaj, in remote highlands
next to the lakeside town of Santiago Atitlan.

Another rescue worker, his face contorted with grief,
carried away a dead toddler wrapped in a plastic bag.

Hundreds of homes at the village were swallowed up when a
hillside collapsed under heavy rains dumped by Hurricane Stan
earlier this week.

Outside emergency teams only reached the town on Friday,
and locals said they feared hundreds could have perished.

“There are no words for this. I have only tears left,” said
teacher Manuel Gonzalez, whose school was destroyed.

Hills sodden with rain gave way throughout Central America,
burying flimsy homes made of wood and tin. Floodwaters covered
huge swathes of land in the region and in southern Mexico.

Guatemala, where about 150 people died, was worst hit. At
least 67 people were killed in El Salvador, 15 in Mexico, 10 in
Nicaragua and four in Honduras.

A Mexican Navy helicopter took time off from rescue efforts
around the flooded southern city of Tapachula to fly into
Guatemala to airlift 44 people stuck in the town of Malacatan
just across the border.

Central America is particularly vulnerable to rain because
so many people live in precarious, improvised dwellings
dangerously close to river beds and on mountainsides.

Hurricane Mitch killed some 10,000 people in the region,
mostly in mudslides in 1998.

The tops of lampposts and trees poked through a river of
mud that had flowed down the slopes of a volcano straight into
Panabaj.

PRECARIOUS HOMES

“There were only houses here, for as far as you could see.
… It makes you lose hope,” said Gonzalez, his voice cracking.
“There are no children left, there are no people left.”

Some families were awakened in the middle of the night by
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.

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

Cut off from the outside world, it took rescuers three days
to get here, hacking their way through debris from landslides
as more earth tumbled from sodden mountainsides.

Across the region, mud-coated bodies piled up in morgues
while survivors sobbed and said they needed food and water.
Many did not know what had happened to relatives and were
desperate for news.

Though Hurricane Stan fizzled out after hitting Mexico
early this week, rain is forecast to continue into the weekend.

In Tapachula, Mexico — a normally bustling town on the
Guatemalan border that has been cut off since a raging wall of
water tore through its center — 72-year-old Luciano Aguilar
stood guard with his dog by his destroyed riverside shantytown.

“This has never happened before,” he said, surveying the
pile of corrugated iron and smashed furniture that used to be
his home. “I don’t think they’re going to let us keep living
here.”

Some 2,500 homes were destroyed in Tapachula and food was
running short.

(Additional reporting by Eduardo Garcia and Herbert
Hernandez in Guatemala and Noel Randewich in Tapachula, Mexico)




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