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Last updated on April 20, 2014 at 14:04 EDT

Guatemalan village buried in mud, 1,400 feared dead

October 8, 2005

By Frank Jack Daniel

PANABAJ, Guatemala (Reuters) – About 1,400 Guatemalan
villagers were feared dead on Saturday under a huge mudslide
triggered by rains from Hurricane Stan, in one of Latin
America’s biggest tragedies of recent years.

Fire department spokesman Mario Cruz said some 1,400 people
had disappeared after the fatal quagmire of mud, rock 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 told Reuters 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 1,000.

The village had about 4,000 inhabitants before it was
destroyed and over 2,100 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 40 feet of mud, officials said
they might abandon the search and declare the village a mass
grave.

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.

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

‘VERY ALARMING’

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 told Reuters 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.

The storm was a low-strength Category 1 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.

Hurricane Mitch killed some 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
neighbors, 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 percent of agricultural production is lost. Ten
percent 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.

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

The area is popular with U.S. 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.

(Additional reporting by Greg Brosnan in Mexico City)