17 Dead In Guatemalan Mudslide

Residents and rescue workers sift through the mud searching for victims or survivors of a mudslide, in the small town of El Porvenir.
Heavy rains loosened a mountainside in western Guatemala, burying about 30 homes and killing at least 17 people. Officials said Friday that over two-dozen others were missing.

Wading through mud Friday, residents clawed at tangles of sticks, earth and rock in desperate efforts to find survivors. Emergency officials were sending tractors and other heavy machinery to the site, but residents were losing hope that anyone would be found alive.

Although rains stopped before dawn Friday, cloudy skies threatened to dump more water on the area, complicating rescue efforts.

The avalanche of water and mud buried the poor, coffee-farming community late Thursday, sending panicked residents fleeing for higher ground and burying those who could not outrun the torrent.

At least six of the dead were children. Fourteen people were hospitalized.

Nestled along a river in a narrow valley, most residents of El Porvenir, 100 miles west of Guatemala City, work on nearby coffee plantations.

"It sounded like an earthquake," said Daniel Ajpop, a Maya Indian coffee farmer who lost his daughter and granddaughter in the mudslide.

"Last night we heard the mountain thunder, 'boom, boom,' and my daughter yelled, 'Let's go mom! Here comes the water,"' said Lucia, a 68-year-old Cakchiquel Indian. "We left in time."

Officials turned a town meeting hall into a temporary morgue, and the room quickly filled with bodies. Two firefighters carried the mud-caked body of a boy on a stretcher and a long line of men and women trailed behind, weeping loudly in the local Mayan dialect Kakchiquel.

Another firefighter carried a severed leg from the mud, saying it was all he had.

"The body has disappeared," he said.

Guatemala's vice president, Juan Francisco Reyes, said he would visit the site.

Guatemala's disaster prevention office said deforestation and erosion contributed to the disaster, making it easier for the swollen river to loosen earth, rocks and trees.

Beds and mattresses floated in the mud and a dead pig lay beside a child's abandoned rag doll.

Police and soldiers joined the rescue effort early Friday, and nearby residents arrived carrying baskets of food. A group of women stood in the village consoling those who lost family members.

"We arrived last night, but nothing could be done because everything was so dark," said Francisco Velasquez, one of the first rescue officials at the site. "We couldn't make heads or tails of what had happened, so we camped out and waited for the sun."