NAHUALA, Guatemala – Torrential rains from a tropical depression caused landslides that have killed at least 38 people in Guatemala — some of them rescuers trying to save people already buried under a wall of mud.
In the village of Nahuala, about 200 rescue workers searched through mud and rocks for bodies Sunday after two slides in the same spot killed at least 20 along a highway leading northwest of the capital toward Mexico. Another slide closer to Guatemala City killed at least 12.
Suagustino Pascual Tuy, a Nahuala police officer, said he and several others rushed to the highway with picks and shovels after hearing radio reports of the fallen earth, which had buried two pickup trucks and a bus at kilometer 171 of the Inter-American highway.
Pascual Tuy said the crowds were able to rescue several people alive including his nephew, who was driving one of the pickups.
“He is in critical condition, but thank God we were able to get him out alive,” he said.
Pascual Tuy said people were still digging through the rubble when the mountain above them began crackling. He shouted a warning, but moments later the second slide buried a number of rescuers. Pascual Tuy ran for his life and the slide only caught his legs.
“The mountain was making noise like an earthquake, but people wouldn’t leave,” he said. “They were being stubborn and didn’t get out.”
Regional fire department Maj. Otto Mazariegos said at least 50 people are believed to be buried.
“Under the earth there is a bus that carried we don’t know how many people, and there are those who tried to help the victims of the first slide,” Mazariegos said.
Rescue crews have recovered 20 bodies from that site, said fire department spokesman Jose Rodriguez.
A few hours earlier, a landslide at kilometer 81 of the same highway partially buried a bus, killing 12 people.
Pascual Tuy said there have been several landslides along the highway in the last year, and authorities knew of the danger.
“Last year there was a landslide there, 15 days ago there was a landslide,” he said. “But now a big one came.”
President Alvaro Colom visited the area Sunday and said the following day would be declared a national day of mourning.
Speaking Saturday, even before news of the second slide, Colom said, “It is a tragic day. Today alone 18 people have died, 12 buried by a hill when they traveled in a bus.” Four children and two adults died in slides elsewhere, he said.
The president told officials to close the highway.
“There are several hillsides that are loose and could fall. So we ask the population to not go out, to avoid moving along the highways,” he said.
Heavy rains from Tropical Depression 11-E have pelted Guatemala for days, unleashing mudslides in several areas, cutting highways and prompting officials to evacuate thousands of people.