Death toll from rains in Central America, Mexico over 600

Guatemala has suffered the brunt of Hurricane Stan, which made landfall Tuesday.

mud slide mexico 88 (photo credit: )
mud slide mexico 88
(photo credit: )
Dozens of Mayan Indians dug through congealed mud with hand tools, searching for bodies under a landslide in Guatemala that swallowed an entire neighborhood. Many of the dead were buried without identification, as the death toll from a week of relentless rains across Central America and Mexico rose to 617 victims. Hardest hit was this lakeside town, where the side of a volcano collapsed, killing at least 208 people. Federal officials said Saturday the victims were among 508 people killed and another 337 missing in Guatemala. The rest of the dead were scattered throughout El Salvador, Mexico, Nicaragua, Honduras and Costa Rica. The mud-spattered body of 3-year-old Mari Taxachoy Tzina was pulled Saturday from the home where she died. Her father, Gaspar, buried her in a common grave at the local cemetery. Guatemala has suffered the brunt of heavy rains exacerbated by Hurricane Stan, which made landfall Tuesday on the Mexican Gulf Coast before quickly weakening to a tropical depression. Governments in Central America and Mexico were still struggling Saturday to reach isolated areas devastated by flooding and landslides. Many roads had yet to be cleared of debris. On the banks of Lake Atitlan, dozens of Mayan Indians swarmed over a vast bed of caked mud that covered trees and houses, looking for those still missing. Primitive wooden coffins piled up in the cemetery, waiting for badly decomposed bodies. Villagers held sprigs of native herbs to ward off odors as they dug mass graves for bodies that likely would be buried without names. "Entire families have disappeared," said Diego Sojuel, of the Santiago Atitlan municipal aid committee. "In some cases, there is no one that can identify the cadavers. And in other cases, it is because of the state of decomposition that we are going to have to bury them without names." Tourists worked alongside local residents digging trenches 3-meters (10-feet) deep through mud strewn with bits of tin roofing, clothing, papers and bedding. Chris Needham, 24, of London, paused to wonder aloud whether some areas might eventually have to be declared a burial ground. "That's people's families under there," he said. "They're not going to stop digging. I wouldn't stop." Guatemalan officials organized an air-rescue squad of their own helicopters as well as those lent by the United States and neighboring Mexico. But bad weather has limited flights. Colombia announced Saturday it will fly in 10 tons of food, cleaning materials and first-aid equipment to help victims in Central America and Mexico. The U.S. Agency for International Development had sent thousands of blankets, tarps and hygiene kits to Guatemala, the U.S. Embassy announced. In Mexico, President Vicente Fox visited devastated southern Chiapas state and delivered aid to hundreds living in shelters. Some victims said they still hadn't heard from missing family members. In Guatemala, government workers have used heavy machinery to clear fallen trees and earth from the InterAmerican Highway. The country's important Pacific coast highway remained impassable, however, after raging rivers destroyed five bridges. The disaster started gradually in communities ringing Lake Atitlan, where creeks and rivers began spilling their banks on Wednesday as rains soaked cornfields that climb steep, deforested hillsides. Farmer Martin Ramirez Tacaxoy, 41, said his sister came by to wake him up to tell him the nearby river was rising. But because the continuing rains had been so gentle, many other people went back to sleep - until the wall of earth came. Survivors struggled to describe the thunderous roar of the mud that buried entire families. "I saw it coming. I leaned up against the wall," Pablo Gaspar, 16, a firewood collector, gasped on his hospital bed after being rescued from the muck. "Then the wall collapsed on me." He lost six family members, including both his parents.