200 missing, scores dead after Guatemala eruption

Volunteers and rescuers evacuating the disaster zone in the city of Escuintla, about 35 km south-west of Guatemala City, as the Fuego volcano's activity increased on Tuesday, halting rescue operations.
Volunteers and rescuers evacuating the disaster zone in the city of Escuintla, about 35 km south-west of Guatemala City, as the Fuego volcano's activity increased on Tuesday, halting rescue operations.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

ALOTENANGO (Guatemala) • Nearly 200 people were missing and at least 75 were killed since Guatemala's Fuego volcano began erupting over the weekend, officials said.

Seven communities in already devastated areas were evacuated as the volcano's activity increased on Tuesday, with rescue operations halted.

In the city of Escuintla, near the summit, panicked locals rushed to their cars to escape, causing chaotic traffic. An Agence France-Presse photographer saw a large plume of ash rise into the sky, prompting an evacuation of everyone the authorities could find before the police, the military and rescuers were ordered to stand down.

A total of 192 people remain missing since the weekend eruptions, disaster relief agency chief Sergio Cabanas told reporters.

The search for bodies in mountain villages destroyed by the eruption was progressing slowly, officials said earlier, given the nature of the terrain and the way the volcano released large amounts of boiling mud, rock and ash down the mountain.

"We will continue until we find the last victim, though we do not know how many there are. We will probe the area as many times as necessary," Mr Cabanas said.

But the prospects of finding more survivors were poor, he added.

"If you are trapped in a pyroclastic flow, it's hard to come out of it alive," he said, adding that people who may have been caught in the flow may never be found.

Among the latest of the 75 fatalities reported by the National Institute of Forensic Sciences was a woman, 42, who died in hospital after losing both legs and an arm in the eruption. Officials said some 46 people were injured, around half of whom are in serious condition.

The 3,763m volcano erupted early on Sunday, spewing out towering plumes of ash and a hail of fiery rock fragments with scalding mud.

The authorities said more than 1.7 million people had been affected by the disaster, including the more than 3,000 ordered to evacuate, many of whom are living in shelters.

The speed of the eruption took locals by surprise, and could be explained by it producing pyroclastic flows, sudden emissions of gas and rock fragments, rather than lava, said volcanologist David Rothery of Britain's Open University.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 07, 2018, with the headline '200 missing, scores dead after Guatemala eruption'. Print Edition | Subscribe