Entire families buried as Guatemalans battle to recover the dead after volcano eruption

Death toll on Tuesday rose to 69
Posted at 5:16 AM, Jun 05, 2018

A sudden, violent eruption from Guatemala's Fuego volcano spewed a fiery mix of ash, lava and gases, that left residents nearby with little time to evacuate in a deadly disaster that has killed 69 people.

The death toll from Guatemala's National Institute of Forensic Sciences could rise as rescuers struggled to reach the towns that were overrun.

Dazed survivors, covered in ash and some with blood, trudged through their destroyed neighborhoods. Many were shocked and sobbing, wondering what happened to their loved ones.

The Fuego volcano unleashed fast-moving pyroclastic flow-- a nasty mix of ash, rock and volcanic gases that can be much more dangerous than lava. Pyroclastic flows can race down a volcano at hundreds of kilometers per hour -- much faster than people or even cars. And they're known to destroy nearly everything in their path, according to the US Geological Survey.


Entire towns were engulfed by thick, heavy ash, blocking roads and leaving behind steaming debris that rescuers had trouble navigating. The heat from the ground was so intense that the soles of some firefighters' boots were tearing off and they were having to walk on wooden planks.

"It is very, very difficult due to the fact that it's very, very hot," said Mario Cifuentes, a volunteer firefighter said. "The soil is very unstable. We cannot be walking around... the shoes, they've been completely destroyed because of the heat."

Firefighters were also having difficulty breathing in the hazardous conditions.

Ash and gases have covered large areas of ground, said Diego Ibarguen, who works for a firefighter support organization and flew a drone over areas awash in ash.

"Basically there's no houses left, and to my assumption there's nobody left there ... except the people doing the search and rescue," he said. "The sad news is there's a bunch of recovery of bodies of children and adults there."

Guatemala is in a state of mourning that will last three days while officials say more eruptions could be on the way.

'House was buried with my entire family inside'

So far, 17 people who died have been identified, according to Guatemala's National Institute of Forensic Sciences. Most of the victims were from the city of Hunapu in Escuintla state.

At least 15 people have been hospitalized, including 12 children -- some of whom suffered severe burns, the nation's health ministry said.

Displaced from their homes, survivors were anguished over the whereabouts of their loved ones. Bodies mounted at the morgue as families wailed in agony.

Mourning families carried the dead on their shoulders in caskets bearing the names of their children and their ages -- some as young as 6 and 3.

A sobbing woman who lives in the town of Los Lotes told CNN en Español: "My mother's house was buried with my entire family inside... my three sons, two daughters and my grandson. My mother, my sisters, my nieces and nephews."

Another woman, Consuelo Hernandez told the Guatemalan disaster agency that some of her relatives were buried.

"Not everyone escaped, I think they were buried," Hernandez said in a video released by CONRED, the government agency for disaster reduction. "We saw the lava was pouring through the corn fields, and we ran toward a hill."

Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales asked people to stay calm and to work together during the disaster.

"We would also like to ask for your patience because we need to ensure, not only the security of our rescue workers, but the integrity of those people who may still be alive," he told reporters and rescue workers in Escuintla on Monday.

More than 3,100 people have been evacuated and 1.7 million people have been affected by the eruption, according to CONRED.

There was at least a glimmer of hope in the ash in a video released Monday by Guatemala's National Civil Police. It showed an officer rescuing a baby girl from a home covered in volcanic ash. The baby appeared to be safe and unharmed.

The impact of the fire volcano

Volcan de Fuego, which means fire volcano, is one of Central America's most active and is near the colonial city of Antigua.

The eruption was visible even from space, as satellite footage showed the massive dark gray ash cloud.

The villages were right on the foothills of the mountain, making it difficult to escape. And authorities urged residents living near the volcano to evacuate immediately, and warned some in Chimaltenango, Sacatepequez and Escuintla states to watch out for volcanic rocks and ash.

Sunday's explosion rained soot over the popular tourist destination and other villages in the Sacatepéquez state, covering them in ash.

Some ash reached the capital of Guatemala City about 25 miles away, temporarily forcing the closure of its international airport. Officers were clearing the runway with brooms, in images shared by the Guatemalan army.

The eruption officially ended late Sunday, said Guatemala's National Institute of Seismology, Vulcanology, Meteorology and Hydrology.

But it warned there could be new eruptions, and residents in the surrounding areas should be on alert for mudslides containing volcanic material.