World News

Guatemala Volcano’s Death Toll, Now at 65, Is Likely to Rise

Posted June 4, 2018 9:48 p.m. EDT
Updated June 4, 2018 9:54 p.m. EDT

ANTIGUA, Guatemala — Rescue workers searched for survivors amid a desolate landscape of ash and mud on Monday, a day after a volcano erupted near the capital of Guatemala, killing at least 65 people.

The number of missing after the Fuego volcano’s eruption was still unclear, according to officials with Guatemala’s natural disaster commission, known as CONRED.

Volunteer firefighters waded though layers of ash that reached knee-deep in places, only to find the charred remains of those who had been unable to flee the torrent of burning rock and ash that poured down the slopes of the volcano, whose name means “fire.”

“We saw bodies totally, totally buried, like you saw in Pompeii,” said Otto Mazariegos, president of the Association of Municipal and Departmental Firefighters.

The death toll was expected to rise, “probably in the hundreds,” Mazariegos said. Rescue workers had yet to reach sites on the south side of the volcano, which were inaccessible.

As the day wore on, officials were forced to suspend some rescue operations because of the fear that the volcano might erupt again. The deep ravines on the volcano’s slopes were already filled with lava, Mazariegos said, and there was no way to tell how a new flow might spread.

Published photos from morning visits to the disaster zone showed images of ordinary life frozen under a coat of gray dust. In one house, balloons and chairs were arranged for a child’s birthday party.

The stillness belied the chaos of the day before, as people fled in terror before a roaring wave of destruction.

Survivors who went back to the village of San Miguel los Lotes on Monday morning encountered a village turned to rubble by the force of the eruption.

“My mother is buried there,” Inés López told a Guatemalan newspaper, Prensa Libre, standing amid the wreckage of his home. He was numb with grief. “What can I do to cry? My heart is hard, hard. All our family is here, buried,” he said waving his hand over the ruins.

President Jimmy Morales declared three days of mourning and toured shelters and the disaster area. As he left the buried village of El Rodeo, a weeping woman approached his van and he got out to listen.

“Mr. President, my family is missing,” the woman, Eufemia García, said, sobbing. “Send a helicopter to drop water from above because it is burning there. I have three children, a grandchild, all my brothers and sisters, my mother — more than 20 are missing.”

The volcano, which sits less than 30 miles from Guatemala City, the capital, has been erupting since 2002, according to the Global Volcanism Program. It is a stratovolcano, like Mount St. Helens, with viscous lava that allows gas pressures to build and leads to more explosive eruptions.

The intense activity began Sunday morning, with a strong explosion shortly before noon. The volcano then continued to spew ash, rocks and gas into the air. A second powerful eruption followed at 6:45 p.m. and the activity finally subsided after 16 1/2 hours, Guatemala’s seismology and volcanology institute said.

The explosion created what is known as pyroclastic flows, mixtures of hot gas and rock that course down the slopes of the volcano at great speed, according to the Global Volcanism Program, and their high temperatures and “great mobility make them lethal to anything in their path.”

At its height, the ash billowed more than a mile above the volcano’s cone, and dispersed around a radius of 15 miles, the volcanology institute said.

“We heard a whoosh of the volcano, a sound we hadn’t heard before, and really strong vibrations,” said Fernando Aragón, a science teacher at a school in Antigua who lives close to the volcano outside the town of Alotenango.

“We could see the people fleeing the eruption on the road outside and the heavy machinery and rescue teams making their way up,” Aragón said.

Although he had been told to remain at home on Sunday because the highway was covered in ash, CONRED officials asked his family to evacuate Monday.

The speed of the volcano’s flows took many people by surprise. Some stopped on the road to watch the advance of the giant ash plumes — then broke into a sprint as they realized how fast the plumes were approaching.

Video posted on social media showed people speeding in cars and motorcycles down Highway 14 just ahead of great clouds of ash, which looked as if they might swallow them.

Mazariegos said the eruption was the first in Guatemala to release such high volumes of pyroclastic flow and its accompanying gases.

The gases were likely to create new hazards of eye infections and respiratory illness.

The area was also at risk for acid rain, which could lead to lead poisoning as rain falls on debris, Mazariegos said.

More than 3,000 people were evacuated, and 1,689 found space in shelters in the towns of Escuintla and Alotenango, CONRED said. Forty-six people were hospitalized, some of them with severe burns.