EL RODEO, Guatemala — Rescuers pulled survivors and bodies from the charred aftermath of the powerful eruption of Guatemala’s Volcano of Fire, as the death toll rose to 69 on Monday and was expected to go higher from a disaster that caught residents of remote mountain hamlets off guard, with little or no time to flee to safety. Using shovels and backhoes, emergency workers dug through the debris and mud, perilous labor on smoldering terrain still hot enough to melt shoe soles a day after the volcano exploded in a hail of ash, smoke and molten rock.
Bodies were so thickly coated with ash that they looked like statues, and rescuers were forced to use sledgehammers to break through the roofs of houses buried in debris up to their rooflines to try to see if anyone was trapped inside. Fanuel Garcia, director of the National Institute of Forensic Sciences, said 69 bodies had been recovered and 17 of those had been identified.
“It is very difficult for us to identify them because some of the dead lost their features or their fingerprints” from the red-hot flows, Garcia said. “We are going to have to resort to other methods … and if possible take DNA samples to identify them.” Hilda Lopez said her mother and sister were still missing after the slurry of hot gas, ash and rock roared into her village of San Miguel Los Lotes, just below the mountain’s flanks.
“We were at a party, celebrating the birth of a baby, when one of the neighbors shouted at us to come out and see the lava that was coming,” the distraught woman said. “We didn’t believe it, and when we went out the hot mud was already coming down the street.” “My mother was stuck there, she couldn’t get out,” said Lopez, weeping and holding her face in her hands.