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Time running out for rescue efforts in Guatemala as death toll rises to at least 99

Rescue workers walk near an area affected by the eruption of the Fuego volcano at El Rodeo in Escuintla, Guatemala, on June 6, 2018.

JOSE CABEZAS/Reuters

Emergency crews pulled more bodies from what remained of villages devastated by the eruption of Guatemala’s Volcano of Fire on Wednesday, but time was quickly running out to find survivors as the confirmed death toll rose to 99 with nearly 200 still missing.

Thousands of people displaced by the eruption have sought refuge in shelters, many of them with dead or missing loved ones and facing an uncertain future, unable to return to homes destroyed by the volcano.

Firefighters said the chance of finding anyone alive amid the still-steaming terrain was practically non-existent 72 hours after Sunday’s volcanic explosion. Thick grey ash covering the stricken region was hardened by rainfall, making it even more difficult to dig through the mud, rocks and debris that reached to the rooftops of homes.

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“Nobody is going to be able to get them out or say how many are buried here,” Efrain Suarez said, standing amid the smoking holes dotting what used to be the village of San Miguel Los Lotes on the flanks of the mountain.

In Photos: Fresh lava flows from Guatemala’s deadly “Volcano of Fire” forces more evacuations

“The bodies are already charred,” the 59-year-old truck driver said. “And if heavy machinery comes in, they will be torn apart.”

Once a verdant collection of canyons, hillsides and farms, the land is now a barren moonscape. Rescuers poked metal rods into the ground, sending clouds of smoke pouring into the air in a sign of the superhot temperatures still remaining below the surface, which firefighters said reached as high as 400 to 700 degrees Celsius in some places.

At a shelter in the Murray D. Lincoln school in the city of Escuintla, about 15 kilometres from the volcano’s peak, Alfonso Castillo said he and his extended family of 30 had lived on a shared plot in Los Lotes, where each family had its own home.

The volcano is one of Central America’s most active, and everyone was accustomed to rumbling and spewing smoke, so at first nothing seemed abnormal on Sunday, the 33-year-old farm worker said. But then a huge cloud of ash came pouring out.

“In a matter of three or four minutes the village disappeared,” Mr. Castillo said. It was smothered in what he described as a “sea” of muck that came crashing into homes, inundating people, pets and wildlife.

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The family holed up in a house that heated up “like a boiler” inside, he said, then made their way onto the roof and then to the upper story of another, concrete home. After a cellphone call to Mr. Castillo’s brother, rescuers arrived and took the family to safety.

But the life they knew was gone.

“Nobody wants to go back there. My children say they would rather be in the streets. … There are many people who are helping us, but we have absolutely nothing. We could not get anything out,” Mr. Castillo said. “For us, there is no tomorrow.”

Still, there were glimmers of a return to some semblance of normality as Guatemalans across the country donated supplies and local volunteers reached out to those in need.

In an open-air patio at the shelter, people displaced by the volcano sat on plastic chairs as student hair stylists gave them free haircuts.

Naomi Diaz of the Ciraiz Beauty Academy said they were moved to help because they saw people who had lost everything. She said she cut the hair of one woman whose hair had been so badly scorched she was unable to comb it.

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“This can serve as a tiny bit of consolation for the people,” Ms. Diaz said.

A day after a new evacuation was ordered because of increasing activity by the volcano, a red alert remained in place for the departments of Escuintla, Sacatepequez and Chimaltenango, and people were advised not to linger near the affected zones.

The country’s seismology and volcanology institute warned of new flows descending Wednesday afternoon through canyons on the volcano’s western slope toward the Pantaleon River, carrying boulders and tree trunks.

Authorities also warned that rains had increased the chance of deadly slides of ash, mud and debris.

The recovery effort was slow, with local media reports saying nine bodies were recovered on Wednesday. Associated Press journalists witnessed the recovery of at least eight bodies, including five stretchers loaded with body bags in Los Lotes.

A man whose rescue in the town of El Rodeo was shown on video as he was pulled out caked in mud with third-degree burns over 50 per cent of his body died at a hospital on Wednesday, the country’s Social Security Institute said.

The official death toll, which was increased to 99 on Wednesday, was expected to rise more, with at least 197 people listed as missing. About 3,500 were in shelters, many with their homes and livelihoods destroyed.

President Jimmy Morales travelled to El Rodeo by helicopter on Wednesday to survey the destruction.

Authorities suspended search and recovery efforts in the afternoon, citing the dangers posed by rain and new flows of volcanic material and debris.

In past disasters in which authorities determined there was no chance of finding survivors and further efforts to recover bodies would be too difficult, areas have been declared burial sites, the final resting place of the victims.

Asked about that possibility, the director of Guatemala’s disaster agency, Sergio Cabanas, said: “Not until the search efforts are over, and it would be left up to the people.”

Guatemala issued warnings to its residents after signs of more activity at the Fuego volcano emerged. It comes within a day of a second eruption there. Reuters
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