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Last updated on April 19, 2014 at 13:20 EDT

Guatemalan village buried by mud, 1,400 feared dead

October 8, 2005

By Frank Jack Daniel

PANABAJ, Guatemala (Reuters) – Rescuers choking on the
smell of death dug for bodies in a black grunge of mud, rock
and trees on Saturday where a Guatemalan village had stood
until Hurricane Stan spawned a mudslide that killed up to 1,400
people.

It was one of the biggest tragedies in recent years in
Latin America, a region often blighted by earthquakes, volcanic
eruptions and hurricanes.

After days of heavy rain from Hurricane Stan, tons of earth
crashed down a volcano’s slopes and into the Maya Indian
village of Panabaj as people slept early on Wednesday, covering
it in a quagmire up to 40 feet deep in places.

Fire department spokesman Mario Cruz said some 1,400 people
had disappeared and were dead.

“There are no survivors here. It happened more than 48
hours ago. They are dead,” Cruz told Reuters.

A local official in charge of compiling death lists put the
likely toll at about 1,000.

Dozens of corpses have already been recovered and locals
were drawing up names of the missing and dead, but with so many
victims feared buried, authorities 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 odor 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.

PULLED OUT

Volunteers uncovered the body of a young girl, her twisted
arm poking out from under the mud. They then found what
appeared to be another corpse nearby but the search for victims
was suspended as rain fell again, threatening to trigger new
mudslides.

Misael Antonio Esquina, the local official in charge of
counting the dead, said many hundreds had perished.

“The figure will probably reach 1,000. I don’t think it is
more than that,” he said.

The deaths in Panabaj may triple earlier estimates of the
toll of fatalities from Hurricane Stan in the poor, Central
American nation. The storm claimed another 67 lives in El
Salvador, 20 in Mexico, 10 in Nicaragua and four in Honduras.

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

Stan was a low-strength Category 1 hurricane and soon
fizzled out, but it dumped enough rain on Central America —
where many of the poor live in shacks — to be a killer.

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.

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
was just over 500 dead but that was likely to at least double.

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 accounts for almost a fifth of the economy.

Over the border in Mexico, the normally bustling city of
Tapachula lay sodden after a river burst its banks this week.

Hundreds of the city’s 300,000 residents lined up to buy
rationed cooking gas. Among the few businesses open were those
selling hardware, concrete or other building materials for
residents eager to repair damaged homes.

“They’re asking us for hoses, pumps, just about everything
to do with moving water,” said hardware store manager Juan
Manuel Zardain.