SANTA CATARINA PINULA, Guatemala (Reuters) - Rescue workers scrabbled through earth and rubble on Saturday in search of survivors of a massive landslide in Guatemala that killed at least 59 people, even as hopes began to fade for hundreds of others still missing.
Diggers plowed into the mounds of earth that destroyed homes in Santa Catarina Pinula on the southeastern flank of Guatemala City looking for about 350 people who authorities said were still unaccounted for after Thursday night’s disaster.
Loosened by rain, tons of earth, rock and trees cascaded onto part of the town from the hillside above, flattening houses and trapping residents who had gone home for the night.
“As the hours go by, we are losing hope,” said Irving Vargas, 48, a local fireman helping the rescue effort. “We haven’t pulled anyone out alive in quite a while.”
Clutching photos of loved ones, families of victims stood in line outside a makeshift morgue near the excavation site, some of them crying, to see if they recognized any corpses.
Ana Maria Escobar, a 48-year-old housewife, sobbed as she waited for news of 21 missing family members who lived in the town that she had left only a year ago.
“This is the worst thing that has happened to us,” she said. “So far only my sister-in-law has been found.”
At last count, the Attorney General’s office reported 59 dead via Twitter, though fears that hundreds more remain trapped threaten to make the landslide one of the worst natural disasters to hit Central America in recent years.
Among the dead were 17 children, and there were at least 26 people reported as injured.
Cleaning lady Mariselda Perez, 24, waited anxiously with her mother for news of her 17-year-old brother, a mechanic, who lived in Santa Catarina close to some uncles. “The uncles were able to get out and save themselves. (My brother‘s) house was at the back and that’s why he couldn’t escape,” she said.
Around 1,800 soldiers, firemen and neighbors helped with the rescue efforts, according to David de Leon, a spokesman for disaster agency Conred, who said some homes had been buried under about 50 feet (15 meters) of earth.
The search would continue for at least 72 hours after the disaster, but the likelihood of locating survivors after that was slim, he said.
Rescue workers moved about, calling for silence and yelling into the rubble whenever there was a hint of anyone trapped and still conscious beneath the earth. “We are the rescue teams. If there is someone alive, make noise,” they yelled.
On Friday there were reports of family members receiving text messages of buried survivors asking to be rescued.
The tragedy has hit Guatemala after weeks of political turmoil, just as it prepares to elect a new president. Jimmy Morales, a former comic actor favored to win a second round run-off on Oct. 25, arrived at the scene to survey the damage.
Last month, outgoing President Otto Perez was forced to stand down and was arrested on corruption charges.
In October 2005, heavy rainfall triggered a devastating landslide in Panabaj in the southwest of the Central American country, burying the village. Hundreds of people are believed to have died, and many of the bodies were never recovered.
Additional reporting by Enrique Pretel, Alexandra Alper and Anahi Rama,; Editing by Dave Graham, Alison Williams, Richard Chang and Bernard Orr