Tuesday 21 August 2018

'Fuego' disaster: Forensic experts work on grim task of identifying Guatemala volcano victims

Aerial view of the aftermath of a volcano eruption in Escuintla, Guatemala, is seen in this picture obtained June 4, 2018 from social media. MINGOB/PNC/via REUTERS
Aerial view of the aftermath of a volcano eruption in Escuintla, Guatemala, is seen in this picture obtained June 4, 2018 from social media. MINGOB/PNC/via REUTERS
Firefighters and rescue workers look for bodies and survivors at an area affected by the eruption of the Fuego volcano in the community of San Miguel Los Lotes in Escuintla, Guatemala, June 4, 2018. REUTERS/Luis Echeverria TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Evacuees gather outside a church used as a shelter after the Fuego volcano erupted in Alotenango, Guatemala June 4, 2018. REUTERS/Jose Cabezas
A young evacuee gathers inside a church used as a shelter after the Fuego volcano erupted in Alotenango, Guatemala June 4, 2018. REUTERS/Jose Cabezas
Evacuees gather inside a church used as a shelter after the Fuego volcano erupted in Alotenango, Guatemala June 4, 2018. REUTERS/Jose Cabezas
Children play inside a church used as a shelter after Fuego volcano erupted in Alotenango, Guatemala June 4, 2018. REUTERS/Jose Cabezas
People attend the funeral procession, including musicians, for seven people who died during the eruption of the Volcan de Fuego, which in Spanish means Volcano of Fire, as they make their way to the cemetery in San Juan Alotenango, Guatemala, Monday, June 4, 2018. Residents of villages skirting the volcano began mourning the dead after an eruption buried them in searing ash and mud. (AP Photo/Luis Soto)
Trumpet players accompany the funeral procession of seven people who died during the eruption of the Volcan de Fuego, which in Spanish means Volcano of Fire, to the cemetery in San Juan Alotenango, Guatemala, Monday, June 4, 2018. Residents of villages skirting the volcano began mourning the dead after an eruption buried them in searing ash and mud. (AP Photo/Luis Soto)
A police officer stumbles while running away after the Fuego volcano spew new pyroclastic flow in the community of San Miguel Los Lotes in Escuintla, Guatemala, June 4, 2018. REUTERS/Luis Echeverria TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Firefighters, one of them holding a puppy, stand in formation at an area affected by the eruption of the Fuego volcano in the community of San Miguel Los Lotes in Escuintla, Guatemala June 4, 2018. REUTERS/Luis Echeverria
A firefighter shovels ashes while searching for bodies at an area affected by the eruption of the Fuego volcano in the community of San Miguel Los Lotes in Escuintla, Guatemala June 4, 2018. REUTERS/Luis Echeverria
A resident observes a dead dog at an area affected by the eruption of the Fuego volcano in the community of San Miguel Los Lotes in Escuintla, Guatemala, June 4, 2018. REUTERS/Luis Echeverria
People carry the coffins of seven people who died during the eruption of the Volcan de Fuego, which in Spanish means Volcano of Fire, in the background, to the cemetery in San Juan Alotenango, Guatemala, Monday, June 4, 2018. Residents of villages skirting the volcano began mourning the dead after an eruption buried them in searing ash and mud. (AP Photo/Luis Soto)
A resident recovers a television from his house at an area affected by the eruption of the Fuego volcano in the community of San Miguel Los Lotes in Escuintla, Guatemala, June 4, 2018. REUTERS/Luis Echeverria
A car covered in ash is seen at an area affected by the eruption of the Fuego volcano in the community of San Miguel Los Lotes in Escuintla, Guatemala, June 4, 2018. REUTERS/Luis Echeverria
Military personnel are seen at a house affected by the eruption of the Fuego volcano in the community of San Miguel Los Lotes in Escuintla, Guatemala June 4, 2018. REUTERS/Luis Echeverria
Vehicles damaged by an eruption from Fuego volcano are seen beside a firefighter in the community of San Miguel Los Lotes in Escuintla, Guatemala June 4, 2018. REUTERS/Luis Echeverria
ATTENTION EDITORS - VISUAL COVERAGE OF SCENES OF INJURY OR DEATH Firefighters carry a body at an area affected by the eruption of the Fuego volcano in the community of San Miguel Los Lotes in Escuintla, Guatemala June 4, 2018. REUTERS/Luis Echeverria TEMPLATE OUT
A woman is comforted by a firefighter while mourning for her missing relatives at an area affected by the eruption from Fuego volcano in the community of San Miguel Los Lotes in Escuintla, Guatemala June 4, 2018. REUTERS/Luis Echeverria
A resident carries his dog as he leaves an area affected by the eruption from Fuego volcano in the community of San Miguel Los Lotes in Escuintla, Guatemala June 4, 2018. REUTERS/Luis Echeverria
A woman mourns for her missing relatives at an area affected by eruption from Fuego volcano in the community of San Miguel Los Lotes in Escuintla, Guatemala June 4, 2018. REUTERS/Luis Echeverria
Firefighters inspect an area affected by the eruption of the Fuego volcano to search for bodies and survivors in the community of San Miguel Los Lotes in Escuintla, Guatemala June 4, 2018. REUTERS/Luis Echeverria
Mourners take part in the funeral of seven victims who died during the eruption of the Fuego volcano in Alotenango, Guatemala on June 4, 2018. REUTERS/Jose Cabezas
Musicians take part in the funeral of seven victims who died during the eruption of the Fuego volcano in Alotenango, Guatemala on June 4, 2018. REUTERS/Jose Cabezas
Mourners take part in the funeral of seven victims who died during the eruption of the Fuego volcano in Alotenango, Guatemala on June 4, 2018. REUTERS/Jose Cabezas
The body of a victim lies entangled with felled trees blanketed by heavy ash spewed by the Volcan de Fuego, or "Volcano of Fire," in Escuintla, Guatemala, Monday, June 4, 2018. A fiery volcanic eruption in south-central Guatemala sent lava flowing into rural communities, killing at least 25 as rescuers struggled to reach people where homes and roads were charred and blanketed with ash. (AP Photo/Luis Soto)
A firefighter kneels besides bodies recovered near the Volcan de Fuego, or "Volcano of Fire," in Escuintla, Guatemala, Monday, June 4, 2018. The fiery volcanic eruption in south-central Guatemala sent lava flowing into rural communities Sunday, killing several people. Rescuers struggled to reach people where homes and roads were charred and blanketed with ash. (AP Photo/Oliver de Ros)
A youth cries over the coffin of Nery Otoniel Gomez Rivas, 17, whose body was pulled from the volcanic ash during the eruption of the Volcan de Fuego, which in Spanish means Volcano of Fire, during his wake at the main park of the town San Juan Alotenango, Guatemala, Monday, June 4, 2018. A fiery volcanic eruption in south-central Guatemala sent lava flowing into rural communities, killing dozens as rescuers struggled to reach people where homes and roads were charred and blanketed with ash. (AP Photo/Luis Soto)
A truck is covered in volcanic ash spewed by Volcan de Fuego, or Volcano of Fire, in Escuintla, Guatemala, Monday, June 4, 2018. A fiery volcanic eruption in south-central Guatemala sent lava flowing into rural communities, killing at least 25 as rescuers struggled to reach people where homes and roads were charred and blanketed with ash. (AP Photo/Luis Soto)
Residents carry a body recovered near the Volcan de Fuego, or "Volcano of Fire," in Escuintla, Guatemala, Monday, June 4, 2018. A fiery volcanic eruption in south-central Guatemala sent lava flowing into rural communities Sunday, killing several people. Rescuers struggled to reach people where homes and roads were charred and blanketed with ash. (AP Photo/Oliver de Ros)
A firefighter carries the body of a child recovered near the Volcan de Fuego, which means in Spanish Volcano of Fire, in Escuintla, Guatemala, Monday, June 4, 2018. A fiery volcanic eruption in south-central Guatemala sent lava flowing into rural communities, killing dozens. (AP Photo/Oliver de Ros)
People mourn over the coffin of their loved one, who died during the eruption of the Fuego volcano, during a wake at a plaza in Alotenango, Guatemala June 4, 2018. REUTERS/Jose Cabezas

Sonia Perez

Forensic experts are working on the grim task of identifying dozens of bodies charred beyond recognition by the eruption of Guatemala's Volcano of Fire, a disaster that has left at least 110 confirmed dead and nearly 200 still missing.

Even as search and recovery efforts were suspended for a second day amid dangerous new volcanic flows and dwindling hopes of finding survivors, about 15 forensic experts worked at a makeshift morgue in a warehouse in the southern city of Escuintla.

First, the experts check for anything that could help identify the bodies, such as clothing that has not been burned off by flows said to have reached temperatures as high as 700C.

Later, they will take genetic material from the bones - the only option available - and compare it to blood drawn from people with missing relatives.

People attend the funeral of Erick Rivas, 20 (Luis Soto/AP)
People attend the funeral of Erick Rivas, 20 (Luis Soto/AP)

The bones can also yield information to help determine age and gender.

"We are extracting the samples from bones to do DNA tests," forensic expert Miguel Morales said, adding: "The tissues are in very bad shape."

Mr Morales said the bodies were essentially mummified, cooked by the extreme heat.

National Institute of Forensic Sciences director Fanuel Garcia Morales said the process can take several days and workers are trying to get the dead to their families as quickly as possible.

Police officers walk in the disaster zone (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)
Police officers walk in the disaster zone (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)

"The (bodies) are essentially petrified. It's really a question of that in touching and extracting them (during the recovery), they can fall apart easily," Mr Garcia said.

Dr Carlos Rodas, head of operations at the temporary morgue, said workers were employing a variety of techniques including examination of fingerprints, when available, dentistry and individual characteristics such as birthmarks, scars, tattoos and previously broken bones.

Authorities ordered new evacuations on Friday, warning of activity at the Volcano of Fire and saying dangerous flows of volcanic material, water and sediment were coursing through four canyons.

Residents of the town of El Rodeo, who had recently returned to their homes, were told to leave once again, and people were warned to avoid canyons and areas close to the volcano.

The heavily damaged community centre of San Miguel Los Lotes (AP Photo/Moisés Castillo)
The heavily damaged community centre of San Miguel Los Lotes (AP Photo/Moisés Castillo)

Disaster agency Conred said more than 3,000 workers were attending to families affected by the eruption, and about 3,700 displaced people were being housed in shelters.

Officials say on-and-off downpours have destabilised the terrain and made it too dangerous to work.

But people with missing loved ones have been upset by the suspension of search and recovery efforts.

Some criticised the government's response and travelled into the disaster zones to search for loved ones themselves, digging with their hands or whatever tools they could get hold of.

Estuardo Hernandez, 19, was talking by phone to his father, Margarito Hernandez, when millions of tons of ash tore through the village of San Miguel Los Lotes on the volcano's slope.

"He called me at 3:13pm on Sunday," said Mr Hernandez, who was working in the nearby city of Antigua that day and escaped the deadly flow.

"The last thing he told me was to go far from here. ... The last thing I could hear was him saying: 'Get inside! There's a lot of fire out there.' I say they stayed in the house."

Peering into the ash-filled home, Mr Hernandez pointed at the back wall where he believes his parents tried to seek refuge.

In the days since the disaster, he said, no government official had come by to take down information or lend a hand, even as crews used earth-moving equipment not far away to clear a stretch of blocked highway.

"Without help we can't do anything ... the only thing that matters to the government is the highway," Mr Hernandez said. "Why not bring machinery in here?"

Press Association

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Editors Choice

Also in World News