Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 26 May 2019

Scores dead as Guatemala volcano threatens more eruptions

Fears of a new blow-up have stalked rescue workers since Sunday’s eruption buried entire villages

A view of an area affected by the eruption of the Fuego volcano at El Rodeo in Escuintla. REUTERS/Carlos Jasso
A view of an area affected by the eruption of the Fuego volcano at El Rodeo in Escuintla. REUTERS/Carlos Jasso

Explosions boomed from Guatemala’s fearsome Fuego volcano on Wednesday, unleashing more torrents of molten mud and ash down slopes, as the death toll from an earlier eruption rose to at least 99.

Fears of another blow-up of the 3,763-metre volcano have haunted rescue workers since Sunday’s eruption buried entire villages on its southern flank.

The National Forensic Sciences Agency said in a report on Wednesday that mortuaries have received the remains of 99 people killed as a result of the eruption.

Only 28 have been identified so far, it said.

“We already have data with names and locations where there are missing persons and that number is 192,” Sergio Cabanas, head of Guatemala’s disaster management agency, said.

Experts warned on Wednesday that heavy rains in the area could trigger avalanches with the large flows of volcanic mud, known as lahars, since the eruption on Sunday.

Volcanologists recorded the volcano exploding several times an hour on Wednesday, which generated a 4,700-metre high column of grey ash.

“The explosions are generating moderate avalanches that have an approximate distance of 800 to 1,000 metres,” the Vulcanology Institute said.

It said the lahars could sweep down the mountain laden with concrete, rocks up to a metre in diameter and tree trunks.

“The activity continues and the possibility of new pyroclastic flows in the next hours or days cannot be ruled out, so it is recommended not to remain near the affected area,” it said.

Emergency workers had to temporarily suspend their search on Tuesday after an eruption triggered a landslide.

Hundreds of people were moved from seven communities in the Escuintla area near the summit, as panicked locals rushed to their cars to escape, causing chaotic traffic.

An AFP photographer saw a large plume of ash rise into the sky, prompting an evacuation of everyone authorities could find before the police, the military and rescuers were ordered to stand down.

Hundreds of rescue workers, including firefighters, police and the military, were battling adverse conditions to search for remains in the tangled morass of rubble, dust and earth left behind by the landslides.

General Walter Sanchez, in charge of operations around the epicentre of the destruction near the village of El Rodeo, said the heat from the ash and hot sediment made rescue work difficult.

Firefighters hosed down their smoking boots, which had sunk into molten volcanic material just below the ash surface.

Everything in the search area was covered in a thick blanket of dust. In the murk created by the dust, police were using red ink to mark homes that had been searched for bodies.

More than 12,000 people have been evacuated from their homes, the disaster management agency said, more than 3,000 of them housed in temporary shelters.

On the slopes on Wednesday, local volunteers distributed food to rescue workers, and columns of cars carried food, water, toilet paper, nappies and other necessities to residents.

Some residents said they had organised themselves to prevent looting that they claimed occurred on the first night of the disaster.

The killer eruption was the Central American country’s strongest in four decades.

It sent huge clouds of ash over the surrounding area, blanketing roads, cars and people in thick grey dust as a river of molten mud carved a path down the mountain, sweeping away entire villages.

Officials said the speed and ferocity of the eruption took mountain communities by surprise, with many of the dead found in or around their homes.

Despite offers of international help from the United States, Mexico and several Latin American neighbours, Guatemalan authorities have not made a request for foreign aid.

The foreign ministry said disaster management agency Conred would help determine any such request.

“We are ready when Conred as the governing body of emergency management authorise us to make an appeal,” the ministry said.

President Jimmy Morales has been criticised on social media for passively waiting to react to offers of international aid.

The head of the International Red Cross Francesco Rocca is due to visit Guatemala on Thursday, the Geneva-based agency said.

Updated: June 7, 2018 11:07 AM