Firefighters said the chance of finding anyone alive amid the still-steaming terrain was practically nonexistent 72 hours after the volcanic explosion on Sunday. The thick gray ash covering the stricken region was hardened by rainfall, making it even more difficult to dig through the mud, rocks and debris that reached to the rooftops of homes.
“Nobody is going to be able to get them out or say how many are buried here,” said Efrain Suarez, standing amid the smoking holes dotting what used to be the village of San Miguel Los Lotes on the flanks of the mountain.
“The bodies are already charred,” the 59-year-old truck driver said. “And if heavy machinery comes in they will be torn apart.”
Once a verdant collection of canyons, hillsides and farms, the terrain was now a barren moonscape. Rescuers poked metal rods into the ground, sending clouds of smoke pouring into the air in a sign of the super-hot temperatures still remaining below the surface, which firefighters said reached as high as 750 to 1,300 degrees Fahrenheit (400 and 700 degrees Celsius) in some places.
At a shelter in the Murray D. Lincoln school in the city of Escuintla, about 10 miles (15 kilometers) from the volcano’s peak, Alfonso Castillo said he and his extended family of 30 had lived on a shared plot in Los Lotes where each family had its own home.
Everyone was accustomed to the volcano, one of Central America’s most active, rumbling and spewing smoke, the 33-year-old farm worker said, so at first nothing seemed abnormal on Sunday. But then a huge cloud of ash came pouring out.
“In a matter of three or four minutes the village disappeared,” Castillo said, smothered in what he described as a “sea” of muck that came crashing into homes, inundating people, pets and wildlife.
The family holed up in a house that heated up “like a boiler” inside, then made their way onto the roof and then to the upper story of another, concrete home. After a cellphone call to Castillo’s brother, rescuers arrived and brought the family to safety.
But the life they knew was gone.
“Nobody wants to go back there. My children say they would rather be in the streets. … There are many people who are helping us, but we have absolutely nothing. We could not get anything out,” Castillo said. “For us, there is no tomorrow.”
Still, there were glimmers of a return to some semblance of normality as Guatemalans across the country donated supplies and local volunteers reached out to those in need.
In an open-air patio at the shelter, people displaced by the volcano sat on plastic chairs as student hair stylists gave them free haircuts.
Naomi Diaz of the Ciraiz Beauty Academy said they were moved to help because they saw people who had lost everything. She said she cut the hair of one woman whose hair had been so badly scorched she was unable to comb it.
“This can serve as a tiny bit of consolation for the people,” Diaz said.
A day after a new evacuation was ordered due to increasing activity by the volcano, a red alert remained in place for the departments of Escuintla, Sacatepequez and Chimaltenango, and people were advised not to linger near the affected zones.
Authorities warned that the rain had also increased the chance of deadly flows of ash, mud and debris.
The recovery effort was slow, with only nine bodies recovered on Wednesday, according to media reports. An Associated Press journalist witnessed five stretchers carrying bags containing human remains being carried out of Los Lotes.
A man whose rescue in the town of El Rodeo was shown on video as he was pulled out caked in mud with third-degree burns over 50 percent of his body died at a hospital Wednesday, according to the country’s Social Security Institute.
The official death toll, which stood at more than 75, was sure to rise, with at least 192 people reported missing. Another 3,319 were in shelters, their homes and livelihoods destroyed.
President Jimmy Morales traveled to El Rodeo by helicopter Wednesday to survey the destruction.
In past disasters where authorities determined there was no chance of finding survivors and further efforts to recover bodies would be too difficult, areas have been declared burial sites, the final resting place of the victims.
Asked about that possibility in this disaster, Conred director Sergio Cabanas said: “Not until the search efforts are over, and it would be left up to the people.”