Guatemala City – Searchers on Monday pulled five more bodies from a mud-covered highway where back-to-back landslides buried bus passengers and then the people trying to save them. The deaths raised the confirmed toll from mudslides in Guatemala to 45 as torrential rains pounded the country.
Authorities said 25 people are confirmed dead and at least 15 are believed to be still buried beneath the debris in the village of Nahuala, where a first mudslide buried a bus and other vehicles, then a second one turned would-be rescuers into victims.
At least 20 others died over the weekend elsewhere as a tropical depression saturated the ground and set off more than a dozen landslides around the country, according to the national disaster agency. The most recent slide, on a highway in northern Guatemala, killed one person and injured 26 on Sunday.
In southern Guatemala, meanwhile, rescue workers used motorboats to reach about 100 families cut off by massive flooding in the town of Santa Ana Mixtan. Some residents sat on their roofs waiting to be evacuated, while others tried to drag bundles of their belongings through neck-deep water.
In Nahuala, emergency crews and villagers rushed to the Inter-American highway on Saturday, picks and shovels in hand, after radio reports of the deadly slide — only to be swamped by the second cascade of rock and earth.
Search and rescue efforts were suspended Sunday for fear that the mountainside could give way yet again, but digging resumed Monday with heavy machinery and fewer workers, said Sergio Cabanas, a Civil Protection director.
Of the 100 people originally searching for bodies and survivors, only 33 remained, all of them soldiers and firefighters, Cabanas said.
“And even they might not be able to recover the last of the bodies,” Cabanas said. “It’s very dangerous to have personnel there.”
At least five bodies were pulled out Monday, said Mario Cruz, a firefighters’ spokesman. Authorities initially said more than three dozen people were missing, but the estimate was lowered to 15 after further interviews with witnesses and relatives.
Local police officer Suagustino Pascual Tuy said there had been several landslides along the Inter-American highway in the last year, and authorities knew of the danger.
“Last year there was a landslide there, 15 days ago there was a landslide,” he said. “But now a big one came.”
President Alvaro Colom, who visited the area and declared Monday a national day of mourning, said Guatemala must improve its disaster prevention efforts. He said more geologists should study the terrain in the country’s hillsides.
All told, there were 15 landslides at different spots along the Inter-American Highway — a section of the Pan-American Highway system — within in a 48-hour period, Communications Minister Guillermo Castillo said.
Byron Pivaral, director of the government agency that oversees road construction, said widespread deforestation made it difficult for the land around the highway to absorb heavy rain. Along the highway, he said, people have cut down trees to plant corn and beans.
Vice President Rafael Espada said there would be investigation to determine whether faulty road construction also contributed to the mudslides.