Questions arise about neighborhood where slide killed 144

  • By KATHERINE CORCORAN and SONIA PEREZ D.
  • Tuesday, October 6, 2015 1:03am
  • NewsNation-World

SANTA CATARINA PINULA, Guatemala (AP) — Emergency workers spent a fourth day digging bodies out of a massive mudslide on Monday, watching the death toll rise to 144 as questions mounted about why people were allowed to build homes at the base of a dangerous hillside next to a small river.

Backhoes continued to remove thousands of tons of dirt from the acres-wide mudflow on the outskirts of Guatemala City, with practically no hope of finding anyone alive and increasing difficulties in rescuing whole bodies. Emergency services coordinator Sergio Cabanas said five more bodies had been uncovered, bringing the confirmed death toll to 144; about 300 people remain missing.

Guatemala’s national Disaster Reduction Commission, known as the Conred, said Monday it had warned about the risk to the Cambray neighborhood since last year, and had recommended that residents be relocated.

The commission has now declared the Cambray area uninhabitable, and many residents are now living in shelters.

Commission Director Alejandro Maldonado said he had warned Mayor Tono Coro of the municipality of Santa Catarina Pinula that the river was eating away at the base of the steep hill.

Maldonado said he was waiting for a report from local authorities about what they had done in response to the warning.

Municipal spokesman Manuel Pocasangre said local authorities had warned residents about the dangers, but the inhabitants did not want to leave their homes.

Maldonado acknowledged there are many neighborhoods like Cambray in and around Guatemala City that are at risk of flooding or mudslides.

“What happened in Cambray is just a tragic case of what could potentially happen throughout the city,” Maldonado said.

Rescue efforts resumed early Monday, but overnight rain made the digging more precarious, said fire department spokesman Julio Sanchez. He said the number of rescuers has been reduced and crews were using heavy machinery to move the mud.

Maldonado said authorities are still committed to recovering the bodies of victims, but stressed “we are not going to risk more lives unnecessarily.” In the past, some mudslide areas have been left partially unexcavated and declared de-facto graveyards.

On Monday, 187 people waited on cots inside the Salon Municipal, an auditorium the town usually employs for events and parties. Displaced families could find food, medical services, activities for children and psychological services there.

But no one yet was talking about relocation or compensation for losing their homes, most of which remain intact and weren’t hit by the slide.

Most people there were homeowners, and said they built their homes with all the proper permits, and never had any warning of slide danger. They were more focused on the river that occasionally overflows its banks.

Sonia Hernandez, 26, who had 10 family members displaced and five from another house missing, said they were never warned of the danger. She said her parents had had their home there for 20 years.

“If we had been warned of the danger we were running we never would have bought … practically our own tomb,” Hernandez said.

Clara Elena Solorzano, 40, had lived in the neighborhood for 17 years in a house built by her husband. They only ever thought of the river as a danger, but it had never reached their home. She never heard anything about a risk of mudslides.

Now she expects the government to help them find a new place to live.

“They told us they have to get organized, they have to buy land,” she said. “Also that they’re getting money together to buy us homes, but nothing concrete.”

Rescuers had decided to keep individual emergency workers, relatives and reporters off the mound of dirt. Instead of digging by hand and listening for survivors, crews planned to use mostly backhoes and bulldozers to speed up the search for bodies.

Already the identification process was changing. After three days in mud and water, bodies were nearly unrecognizable. Morgue workers explained that they were moving away from physical identification and relying solely on fingerprints. As the recovered bodies decomposed more, they would use DNA, said municipal medical examiner Dr. Carlos Augusto Rodas Gonzalez.

Cabanas said late Sunday, “Technically, there are no survivors,” though there were faint hopes.

The homes closest to the collapsed hillside are covered so deep that rescuers have had a hard time reaching them; those farther away — and closer to the river — have been flooded, suggesting that anyone trapped inside would have drowned.

About 70 pieces of heavy equipment, mainly backhoes, continued to battle with the huge mound of earth, estimated to contain 3 million cubic yards (meters) of dirt.

Prosecutor Edwin Garcia said that “at the beginning, there was no problem because you could see bodies. The problem now is that they are coming up too dismembered.”

More in News

(Juneau Empire file photo)
Aurora forecast for the week of Feb. 26

These forecasts are courtesy of the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Geophysical Institute… Continue reading

Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire
Nanibaa’ Frommherz, a student at Thunder Mountain High School, testifies about a proposal to help the Juneau School District with its financial crisis during a Juneau Assembly Committee of the Whole meeting Monday night at City Hall. The meeting was moved from the Assembly Chambers to a conference room toward the end due to technical errors that disrupted the live online feed.
Little public reaction to city’s bailout of school district this year, but big questions beyond loom

Only two people testify Monday about proposed $4.1M loan and taking over $3.9 in “shared costs.”

(Michael Penn / Juneau Empire file photo)
Police calls for Sunday, Feb. 25, 2024

This report contains public information from law enforcement and public safety agencies.

Mauka Grunenberg looks at live oysters for sale on Aug. 29, 2022, at Sagaya City Market in Anchorage. The oysters came from a farm in Juneau. Oysters, blue mussels and sugar, bull and ribbon kelp are the main products of an Alaska mariculture industry that has expanded greatly in recent years. (Photo by Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)
Alaska’s mariculture industry expands, with big production increases in recent years, report says

While Alaska’s mariculture industry is small by global standards, production of farmed… Continue reading

U.S. Rep. Mary Peltola (center) walks with Alaska Rep. Will Stapp, R-Fairbanks, and Alaska Sen. Lyman Hoffman, D-Bethel, into the Alaska House of Representatives chambers ahead of her annual address to the Alaska Legislature on Monday. (Mark Sabbatini/Juneau Empire)
Peltola celebrates federal intervention in Albertsons, Kroger merger in legislative address

Congresswoman says wins for Alaska’s fisheries and state’s economy occurring through collaboration.

Sen. Shelley Hughes, R-Palmer, speaks in support of Senate concurrence on a version of an education bill passed by the Alaska House last week during a Senate floor discussion on Monday. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)
Senate concurs on House education bill, Dunleavy is skeptical

Dunleavy schedules press conference Tuesday afternoon in Anchorage to discuss the legislation.

A photo by Ben Huff being exhibited as part of his presentation at 6:30 p.m. at the Alaska State Museum. (Photo courtesy of the Alaska State Museum)
Here’s what’s happening for First Friday in March

Both the state and city museums are celebrating 20 years of artistic… Continue reading

Goose Creek Correctional Center is seen in fall. (Photo courtesy of Alaska Department of Corrections)
Alaska prison failed to provide adequate dental care to inmates, state investigator finds

Goose Creek Correctional Center has gone years without a hygienist, forcing patients to wait

Jirdes Winther Baxter chats with Wayne Bertholl during her 100th birthday celebration Saturday at the Juneau Yacht Club. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)
Jirdes Winther Baxter, last survivor of 1925 Nome serum run, celebrates 100th birthday in Juneau

Five generations of family, dozens of friends and a coalition of political leaders offer tributes.

Most Read