Guatemala holds funeral for volcano victims as hope fades for finding more survivors
The powerful eruption of Guatemala’s Volcano of Fire on Sunday has left 69 dead. (Reuters: Jose Cabezas)
The funeral of the first group of the volcano victims has been held in a central square in Alotenango, a municipality of the Guatemalan department of Sacatepequez.
- Just 17 bodies have been identified so far because the heat of the volcanic debris left most bodies unrecognisable
- There is no electricity in the hardest hit areas of Los Lotes and El Rodeo
- Firefights are not optimistic about finding more victims alive
The silence of the square was broken by the weeping of the loved ones of the seven people who lay in the coffins adorned with yellow, white and red flowers, with candles and metal crosses, as well as baskets to collect funds in order to help families who have been left with nothing.
The seven dead, burned by the incandescent sand from the erupting volcano on Sunday, were killed due to suffocation.
Hundreds of people attended the funeral ceremony, and victims were buried in the local cemetery at about 5:00pm (local time) on the same day.
The powerful eruption of Guatemala’s Volcano of Fire on Sunday has left 69 dead, 300 injured, around two million affected and an unspecified number disappeared, according to the National Coordinator for Disaster Reduction (Conred).
Rescuers tried to retrieve more survivors and identify more victims under the rubble before stopping their work for another night.
Mourners cried over caskets lined up in a row in the main park of Alotenango on Monday evening before rescuers stopped their work for another night.
Relatives cry over the coffin of Nery Otoniel Gomez Rivas, 17, whose body was pulled from the volcanic ash. (AP: Luis Soto)
There is no electricity in the hardest hit areas of Los Lotes and El Rodeo, so most searching continued only until sunset.
Guatemalan authorities put the death toll at 69, but officials said just 17 had been identified so far because the intense heat of the volcanic debris flows left most bodies unrecognisable.
“It is very difficult for us to identify them because some of the dead lost their features or their fingerprints,” said Fanuel Garcia, director of the National Institute of Forensic Sciences.
“We are going to have to resort to other methods … and if possible take DNA samples to identify them.”
‘It’s pretty much going to be miraculous if they find anyone’
Nic Wirtz, a freelance journalist who has been covering the disaster, is not optimistic about rescuers finding more people alive.
“Firefighters we have spoken to expressed that it’s pretty much going to be miraculous if they find anyone, especially towards the southern side of the eruption,” Mr Wirtz told the ABC.
“Essentially the volcano has moved into two different ways.
“The north side is being a little bit less difficult than the south side which remains quite chaotic scene there at the moment.”
Sunday’s eruption caught residents of remote mountain hamlets off guard, with little or no time to flee to safety.
Mr Wirtz, who lives just over 20 kilometres from the volcano, said the rumbling of the volcano was a nightly occurrence.
“It’s kind of like a stomach rumbling if you’re hungry,” he said.
“I’ve been here about nine years and you kind of go to bed and hear the volcano and you go to sleep.
“It is a shock. It is a surprise that a daily occurrence eventually erupts into something like what we’ve seen over the past two-three days.”
It was too late for many as lava overtook people in streets
Using shovels and backhoes, emergency workers dug through the debris and mud, perilous labour on smouldering terrain still hot enough to melt shoe soles a day after the volcano exploded in a hail of ash, smoke and molten rock.
Rescuers used sledgehammers to break through the roofs of houses buried in debris up to their rooflines to check for anyone trapped inside.
Conred spokesman David de Leon said the volcano first erupted about midday Sunday, billowing smoke and ash miles into the sky. Then about 2:00pm came a new, more powerful explosion.
Soon, searing flows of lava, ash and rock mixed with water and debris were gushing down the volcano’s flanks, blocking roads and burning homes.
“It travelled much faster. It arrived in communities right when the evacuation alerts were being sent out,” Mr de Leon said.
Authorities scrambled to issue an evacuation order. Some communities emptied out safely.
A police officer stumbles while running away from a new pyroclastic flow. (Reuters: Luis Echeverria)
But in places like Los Lotes and the village of El Rodeo, about 12 kilometres downslope from the crater, it was too late for many.
The fast-moving flows overtook people in homes and streets with temperatures reaching as high as 700 degrees Celsius, and hot ash and volcanic gases that can cause rapid asphyxiation.
In El Rodeo on Monday, heavily armed soldiers wearing blue masks to avoid breathing in ash stood guard behind yellow tape cordoning off the disaster scene.
Helmeted workers carried bodies away on stretchers, and smoke was still rising from some parts of the ashen landscape strewn with boulders and other debris.
Emergency crews in helicopters managed to pull at least 10 people alive from areas cut off by the flows. Conred said 3,271 people had been evacuated.