Rescuers in Guatemala are searching for survivors and pulling bodies from the smouldering aftereffect of Guatemala’s Volcano of Fire that erupted over the weekend. On Monday, the death toll sat at 69 but is expected to rise as the eruption caught many citizens off guard, leaving the residents of isolated mountain villages with little or no time to escape to safety.
Emergency workers have been digging through terrain that is still hot enough to melt shoe soles while bodies looked like statues after being covered in heaps of ash. Debris buried houses up to their rooflines, requiring rescuers to smash through the roofs to see if anyone was trapped inside.
Fanuel Garcia, director of the National Institute of Forensic Sciences, said that only 17 of the 69 bodies recovered had been identified.
He said that, because of the extreme heat, “It is very difficult for us to identify them because some of the dead lost their features or their fingerprints. We are going to have to resort to other methods ... and if possible take DNA samples to identify them.”
A distraught Hilda Lopez from the village of San Miguel Los Lotes said, “We were at a party, celebrating the birth of a baby when one of the neighbours shouted at us to come out and see the lava that was coming. We didn’t believe it, and when we went out the hot mud was already coming down the street.”
Wiping away tears, she continued, “My mother was stuck there, she couldn’t get out.”
Her husband, Joel Gonzalez, said his father had also been “buried back there, at the house,” as he was unable to escape.
The Volcano of Fire, one of Central America’s most active, has been closely monitored by the Guatemalan authorities after activity picked up around 6 a.m. local time on Sunday before registering a more powerful explosion at around 2 p.m.
Not long after, flows of lava came pouring down the volcano’s sides as ash and rock fell, blocking roads and burning homes.
“It travelled much faster. It arrived in communities right when the evacuation alerts were being sent out,” said de Leon.
Some communities managed to escape safely after the hastily issued evacuation order from the authorities but it was too late for many. In places like Los Lotes and the village of El Rodeo, about 12 kilometers from the crater, the flow arrived too quickly.
Temperatures of the fast-moving flows reached 700 Celsius as they caught people in homes and streets, while the hot ash and volcanic gases caused rapid asphyxiation.
Emergency crews in helicopters managed to pull at least 10 people alive from areas cut off by the flows. Although Conred said 3,271 people had been evacuated, a resident of El Rodeo, Rafael Letran, criticized them for not evacuating communities earlier.
“When the lava was already here they passed by in their pickup trucks yelling at us to leave, but the cars did not stop to pick up the people,” Letran said. “The government is good at stealing, but when it comes to helping people they lack spark.”
In response, De Leon said all protocol was followed by the disaster agency.
“As soon as we received the information around 6 a.m. that the volcano was in an eruptive phase, the protocol was initiated to verify with different sectors and also talk to the communities, to community leaders. ... We had the information from our scientific service, and they told us the trend was that the activity was diminishing,” he said.
According to Associated Press, Conred, issued a number of standard precautions, advising people to "wear protective face masks, clean their rooftops of ash once the eruption was over and cover any food and water intended for human consumption".
In El Rodeo on Monday, heavily armed soldiers wore blue masks to avoid breathing in ash. They stood guard behind yellow tape cordoning off the disaster scene while workers carried bodies away on stretchers.
Although It also said Guatemala City’s international airport was closed due to the danger to planes, President, Jimmy Morales, travelled to inspect the disaster area.
Take a look at CNN's coverage below.