Rescuers pulled survivors and bodies from the charred aftermath of the powerful eruption of Guatemala’s Volcano of Fire, as the death toll rose to 69 on Monday and was expected to go higher from a disaster that caught residents of remote mountain hamlets off guard, with little or no time to flee to safety.
Bodies were so thickly coated with ash that they looked like statues, and rescuers were forced to use sledgehammers to break through the roofs of houses buried in debris up to their rooflines to try to see if anyone was trapped inside.
Fanuel Garcia, director of the National Institute of Forensic Sciences, said 69 bodies had been recovered and 17 of those had been identified.
“It is very difficult for us to identify them because some of the dead lost their features or their fingerprints” from the red-hot flows, Garcia said. “We are going to have to resort to other methods … and if possible take DNA samples to identify them.”
Her husband, Joel Gonzalez, said his father had also been unable to escape and was believed to be “buried back there, at the house.”
Guatemalan authorities say they had been closely monitoring the Volcano of Fire, one of Central America’s most active, after activity picked up around 6 a.m. Sunday.
The volcano has registered a number of minor eruptions over the years, and no evacuations were ordered as scientific experts reported the activity was decreasing.
Soon, searing flows of lava, ash and rock mixed with water and debris were gushing down the volcano’s flanks, blocking roads and burning homes.
“It traveled much faster. It arrived in communities right when the evacuation alerts were being sent out,” de Leon said.
Authorities scrambled to issue an evacuation order. Some communities emptied out safely. But in places like Los Lotes and the village of El Rodeo, about eight miles (12 kilometers) downslope from the crater, it was too late for many.
The fast-moving flows overtook people in homes and streets with temperatures reaching as high as 1,300 degrees Fahrenheit (700 Celsius), and hot ash and volcanic gases that can cause rapid asphyxiation.
In El Rodeo on Monday, heavily armed soldiers wearing blue masks to avoid breathing in ash stood guard behind yellow tape cordoning off the disaster scene. Helmeted workers carried bodies away on stretchers, and smoke was still rising from some parts of the ashen landscape strewn with boulders and other debris.
President Jimmy Morales traveled to survey the disaster area.
Emergency crews in helicopters managed to pull at least 10 people alive from areas cut off by the flows. Conred said 3,271 people had been evacuated.