October 5, 2015 / 3:17 AM / 2 years ago

Some relieved to find bodies as dozens still missing in Guatemala landslide

The wreckage of a car is seen at an area affected by a mudslide in Santa Catarina Pinula, on the outskirts of Guatemala City, October 4, 2015.Josue Decavele

SANTA CATARINA PINULA, Guatemala (Reuters) - Despair in the search for dozens of people still missing after a deadly landslide swallowed part of a Guatemalan town is so deep that some relatives feel lucky simply to have found the bodies of their loved ones.

Families lit candles on Sunday for relatives engulfed by a mass of earth and rubble that crashed down on a neighborhood in Santa Catarina Pinula. Rescue teams have found more than 130 bodies and up to 150 others are missing, feared dead.

"I feel lucky because other families can't even cry over their dead," said Alejandro Lopez, a 45-year-old taxi driver, who recovered the bodies of two daughters and a grandson.

"But I would like to find the mother of my daughters," he said inside a small Evangelical church near Santa Catarina Pinula on the southeastern flank of Guatemala City.

Authorities said on Sunday they had recovered 131 bodies in the town so far. A similar number were still unaccounted for on Sunday, they said, sharply revising down a previous estimate as they recalculated the local population.

Sergio Cabanas, an official at disaster agency Conred, said rescuers planned to continue their search on Monday but were highly unlikely to find any more survivors.

Heavy rains sent earth and rock cascading over homes and trapping residents inside on Thursday night. No survivors have been found this weekend despite the efforts of around 1,800 rescue workers sifting through the rubble.

In the town's crowded cemetery, families sobbed as they placed wreaths on hastily sealed tombs stacked in walls, where simple inscriptions in cement listed the names of the dead.

Reginaldo Gomez buried his grandson Andres in one of the tombs and asked that a space be set aside nearby for the boy's mother and sister, still missing among the mounds of earth and shattered homes littering the valley floor at Santa Catarina.

Along with his wife Angela, Gomez had mourned the 4-year-old boy, garlanded with flowers in a small coffin lined with satin, earlier on Sunday at a modest home in Guatemala City.

"Andres was a happy, sweet, mischievous child but he isn't here any more. He isn't here and we have to stay here without them," Angela said.

"WHY NOT ME?"

In the same cemetery, Araceli Monterroso mourned her son, Jose Manuel Reyes, a 23-year-old cook who died with his wife just ahead of their first wedding anniversary.

"I cannot understand what happened, such a young boy, why him and not me?" the 67-year-old said after the funeral. "My only hope is to see him again when I die if God wills it, and that makes my heart happy."

The El Cambray II neighborhood battered by the landslide lies at the bottom of a deep ravine ringed by trees.

Authorities had flagged risks of flooding and landslides for El Cambray II, saying in a report last year that construction permits should never have been granted for the neighborhood.

The report also recommended authorities consider relocating families living in the area but, as in many other towns in the impoverished Central American country with a history of catastrophic landslides, residents remained.

Authorities said on Sunday they would force families still living in the high-risk zone on the hill to relocate.

In 2005, hundreds of people were killed when torrential rains triggered a landslide that buried the village of Panabaj. Many of the bodies were never recovered.

The question of how to avoid these disasters has re-emerged just as Guatemala prepares to elect a new president in a second round run-off on Oct. 25.

The government has been in disarray for months. President Otto Perez was forced to resign and was arrested on corruption charges last month, with his former vice president Alejandro Maldonado stepping in until the election winner takes office.

Doctors at a shelter in Santa Catarina Pinula worried more about the immediate fallout for survivors of the disaster, describing widespread cases of emotional trauma.

"Mourning is very difficult without a corpse," said Elser Oronez, 41, a senior physician at the shelter. "Now comes the hardest part for them."

Writing by Dave Graham and Alexandra Alper; Editing by Simon Gardner and Paul Tait

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