The death toll from Guatemala’s volcano eruption has leapt to at least 62, as rescuers hunted for possible survivors beneath rivers of ash and mud, and braced for the number of fatalities to rise yet higher.
The director of Guatemala’s National Institute of Forensic Science announced the new figure, increasing the number of killed by the eruption of the nation’s Volcano of Fire from 33. The official, Fanuel Garcia, said only 13 of those bodies had so far been identified, and that the remains recovered were discovered in the hamlets of Los Lotes and El Rodeo.
Another official said Sunday’s eruption triggered floods of fast-moving mixtures of very hot gas and volcanic – known as pyroclastic flows, that buried surrounding villages and residents had little time to escape.
“It’s a river of lava that overflowed its banks and affected the El Rodeo village,” Sergio Cabanas, head of Guatemala’s disaster agency Conred, told the Associated Press. “There are injured, burned and dead people.”
He said four people had died when lava set a house on fire and two children were killed while standing on a bridge watching the eruption. A total of two million people had been affected, he added.
Officials said dozens of people were still missing after the country’s most violent volcanic eruption in more than a century. The Central American nation is famed for its volcanos and contains 34 of them.
Sunday’s eruption at the Fuego volcano, 25 miles southwest of the capital Guatemala City, spewed rock, gas and ash into the sky.
Emergency personnel in helicopters managed to pull at least 10 people alive from ash drifts and mud flows that were up to the rooflines of some homes. As a result, crews had to use sledgehammers to break through the roofs to see if anyone was trapped inside, the AP said.
The eruption of Fuego – Spanish for “fire” – on Sunday was the biggest in decades, forcing the closure of Guatemala’s main international airport and dumping ash on thousands of acres of coffee farms situated on the normally cooler climes of the volcano’s slopes.
At one point, the task of pulling out bodies was halted, after the new eruption and an apparent landslide on the southern slopes of Fuego triggered fresh evacuations.
“They gave the emergency order to evacuate, and we all went running,” one rescue volunteer told a local television crew. “We were pulling out bodies. We’re going to wait a half hour before entering again.”
Reuters reported that witnesses near the volcano said more people had been evacuated beyond a five-mile perimeter from the site after the latest explosion.
Fuego, one of several active volcanoes in Guatemala, is near the colonial city of Antigua, a Unesco world heritage site that has survived several eruptions. The latest activity is mostly on the far side of the volcano, facing the Pacific coast.
President Jimmy Morales has declared three days of national mourning.
Hilda Lopez said the volcanic mud swept into her village of San Miguel Los Lotes, just below the mountain’s flanks, and she did not know where her mother and sister were.
“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,” she said. “We didn’t believe it, and when we went out the hot mud was already coming down the street.”