SANTA CATARINA PINULA, Guatemala (AP) — Rescue workers using shovels and pickaxes recovered more bodies from the rubble of a collapsed hillside on the outskirts of Guatemala City on Saturday as an official said the death toll had risen to 69 with another 350 people believed missing.
Julio Sanchez, spokesman for Guatemala’s volunteer firefighters, said the death toll will likely continue to rise as emergency crews dig through tons of earth that buried some 125 homes Thursday night in Cambray, a neighborhood in the suburb of Santa Catarina Pinula. Earlier estimates had said that 600 people could be missing.
Despite the passing time, emergency services coordinator Sergio Cabanas said rescuers “still have hope of finding people alive if we just keep searching.”
At the site, workers with dogs labored without rest, halting only when a long whistle sounded, testing if anyone was still alive under the mud and debris.
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“We’re from the rescue unit,” one worker announced. “If there is someone there, please make some noise or yell.”
When no response was heard, two more long whistles sounded, a sign that the workers should continue digging.
Cabanas said he had been contacted by several people who reported receiving messages on their cellphones from family members trapped under the rubble. He said authorities had not seen the reported text messages, but had asked local telephone companies to try to map out the places where the messages were sent from.
Highlighting the horror faced by rescuers, Sanchez said that officials had arrived at the death toll of 69 by counting body parts, such as heads and torsos.
Late Saturday, hopes began to fade among rescue workers and authorities announced that the search would be suspended until Sunday morning to guarantee the safety of the workers.
“Given the time that has passed, the truth is there is little hope” of finding survivors, said Ines de Leon or the Volunteer Firefighters Rescue Brigade of Retalhuleu province. “Only a miracle can save them.”
While emergency team leaders estimated that about 350 people remained missing, municipal authorities said late Saturday that they thought about 300 were missing because some people were not in the area at the time.
Among those mourning the loss of their relatives on Saturday was Nehemias Gonzalez, who seemed to have run out of tears. He lost his 21-year-old wife, Masiel Alexandra, and their 2-year-old child, Angel Efrain.
Gonzalez said he was working at his job at a McDonald’s restaurant when the landslide occurred. He said he usually left work at 11 p.m., but that day he was given extra chores and didn’t leave until 4 a.m. Friday. It wasn’t until then that he learned about the disaster.
“The last thing she said when I called her on the telephone in the afternoon was that she loved me,” Gonzalez said, looking down at the ground. “I love her, too.”
Also at the site was Haroldo Perez, who traveled with four other relatives from San Marcos, about 177 miles (285 kilometers) west of the capital. Armed with shovels, they were searching for his 36-year-old sister Mary Perez, a secretary they had not heard from since the mudslide.
The dead were being brought to an improvised morgue where weeping relatives identified the bodies. The dead included Quani Bonilla, 18, who played on the national squash team.
Also among the bodies, rescuers found a mother embracing her two girls, said Carlos Turcios, a doctor who saw them when he came to help the rescue.
The hill that towers over Cambray, about 10 miles (15 kilometers) east of Guatemala City, partly collapsed onto a 200-foot (60-meter) stretch of the hamlet just before midnight, burying an estimated 125 homes.
Raul Rodas, an assistant village mayor, said about 150 families had lived in the area where the mudslide occurred.
Some of the untouched homes in Cambray, which sits on the edge of a small river, were abandoned by their owners for fear of further mudslides.
Homemaker Dulce del Carmen Lavarenzo Pu said she had just returned from church Thursday evening when the ground shook and she heard a terrible noise. A wave of mud slid from the nearby mountainside and buried everything just 150 feet (50 meters) from her house.
“Everything went black, because the lights went out,” the 28-year-old said. “Ash and dust were falling, so we left the house. You couldn’t see anything.”
Her cousin was among those killed when the rain-sodden hillside about 300 feet (100 meters) high had collapsed onto her neighborhood.
Marleni Pu, 25, stood Friday at the edge of the mudslide, her face swollen with weeping.
“My uncles, my cousins, my nieces and nephews are all there,” she said, looking across the field of debris where about two dozen relatives had lived. “Six houses where my relatives lived are all under the hillside now.”
Searchers dug out her relative, Rony Ramos, 23, who was rescued from a home near the edge of mudflow. But at its center, the landslide buried houses under a layer of rocks and earth as much as 50 feet (15 meters) deep. He had apparently been trapped in an air pocket, face down and unable to move.
“When our personnel were searching through the rubble, they heard a voice,” said rescue worker Cecilio Chacaj. “They located the man, who was buried about two meters (six feet) under rubble.” He said rescuers worked frantically for five hours with jackhammers and saws to free Ramos.