Sunday 24 June 2018

Temperatures hit 700C as families wiped out in torrent of fire and mud

The Fuego Volcano in eruption, seen from Alotenango municipality, Sacatepequez department, about 65 km southwest of Guatemala City. Photo: AFP/Getty Images
The Fuego Volcano in eruption, seen from Alotenango municipality, Sacatepequez department, about 65 km southwest of Guatemala City. Photo: AFP/Getty Images

Helen Horton in Guatemala City

José Antonio Rivera counted to nine on the fingers of his grey, ash-encased hands as he tallied relatives who had vanished in the torrent of mud and fire.

"My children are gone. There is just me, my wife and one son left," he said amid apocalyptic scenes in the shadow of Guatemala's El Fuego volcano.

The massive eruption blasted smoke more than 6km into the sky and set off a pyroclastic surge of the kind that destroyed the ancient city of Pompeii in AD79.

Such a surge - a mixture of ash, sand and gas - can reach temperatures of 700C and travel at more than 100km per hour.

Hilda Lopez described how it swept into her village of San Miguel Los Lotes during a party.

She said: "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.

Volunteer firefighters carry the coffins of two children who were killed by El Fuego volcano in Guatemala. Photo: AFP
Volunteer firefighters carry the coffins of two children who were killed by El Fuego volcano in Guatemala. Photo: AFP

"We didn't believe it, and when we went out the hot mud was already coming down the street.

"My mother was stuck there, she couldn't get out."

One group of villagers gathered on a bridge to watch what they thought would be a slow lava flow, only fleeing at the last minute as the bridge was suddenly overwhelmed.

The official death toll of 69 was expected to rise as rescue workers combed the worst affected area 40km southwest of the capital Guatemala City.

Guatemalan policemen during search operations around Volcano Fuego after an eruption. Photo: HO/AFP/Getty Images
Guatemalan policemen during search operations around Volcano Fuego after an eruption. Photo: HO/AFP/Getty Images

The village of El Rodeo was "buried", the rescuers said. They described finding bodies so cased in ash they looked like statues.

Some rescuers had to return to their bases after their shoes melted. Others managed to dig out 10 survivors.

"We are looking for people who are missing, but we don't know how many there are," said Mario Cruz, spokesman for the fire brigade.

Six children and their pregnant mother had been rescued from their home and taken to a local hospital where survivors were being treated for burns and breathing difficulties.

President Jimmy Morales declared three days of mourning but his government was already facing criticism for not acting sooner.

The slow reaction may have been related to the fact Guatemalans are used to seeing El Fuego, one of Central America's most active volcanoes, spit burning material into the sky.

Camilo Toledo, a tour guide, blamed the destruction on rivers being already overflowing and filled with mud, meaning the pyroclastic flow became far more dangerous.

"The rain made it far more deadly," he said. "It also meant the evacuation effort was much more difficult." (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Telegraph.co.uk

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