With 124 Dead, Rescuers Seek Salvador Survivors

By: Diego Mendez AP Email
By: Diego Mendez AP Email

VERAPAZ, El Salvador (AP) - Soldiers and townspeople dug through
rock and debris Monday in hopes of finding dozens of people missing
in a mudslide that swept down on a town, part of a wave of floods and landslides that killed at least 124 people in El Salvador.

Days of heavy rains loosed mud and boulders that rolled down the slopes of the Chichontepec volcano before dawn Sunday, burying homes and cars in Verapaz, a town of about 3,000 people 30 miles (50 kilometers) outside the capital, San Salvador.

Hurricane Ida's presence in the western Caribbean late last week may have played a role in drawing the rain-packed, Pacific low-pressure system toward El Salvador on the other side of Central America, said Dave Roberts, a Navy hurricane specialist at the U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami, Florida.

Soldiers, emergency workers and relatives resumed a search for the missing at daybreak Monday and military helicopters flew in food for the searchers.

Survivor Cruz Ayala described the slide as "something black, like a huge wave, a huge noise, and I heard screams of people asking for help."

She fled and climbed the roof of a neighbor's house without knowing if her 71-year-old mother and teenage nieces escaped.

She found her mother and one of the girls, but the other, 14-year-old Evelyn, remains missing.

Amid a persistent drizzle, rescuers dug frantically for survivors with shovels and even bare hands. But the search was made difficult by collapsed walls, boulders and downed power lines that blocked heavy machinery.

A small church became an impromptu funeral home, with relatives waiting outside under the rain for loved ones to be prepared for burial.

Mario Montoya said his sister, who was eight months pregnant, was among the dead.

"A torrent of water grew and great boulders started to destroy homes. It was terrible," said Montoya, 29.

President Mauricio Funes declared a national emergency and called the damages incalculable.

"The images that we have seen today are of a devastated country," Funes said on local television.

The Salvadoran Civil Protection agency raised the death toll to 124 late Sunday, with another 60 people missing. The agency didn't break down the deaths by location, but they were concentrated in San Salvador and San Vicente province, where Verapaz is located. Red Cross spokesman Carlos Lopez Mendoza said earlier that 60 people were missing in Verapaz.

Matias Mendoza, 26, was at home in Verapaz with his wife, Claudia, and their 1-year-old son, Franklin, when the earth began moving.

"It was about two in the morning when the rain started coming down harder, and the earth started shaking," Mendoza recalled. "I warned my wife and grabbed my son, and all of a sudden we heard a sound. The next thing I knew I was lying among parts of the walls of my house.

"A few minutes later, I found my wife and my son in the middle of the rubble, and, thank God, we're alive," said Mendoza, who suffered cuts on his cheek that emergency workers stitched up.

Almost 7,000 people saw their homes damaged by landslides or cut off by floodwaters following three days of downpours from the low-pressure system.

San Vicente Gov. Manuel Castellanos said workers were struggling to clear roadways, and power and water service had been knocked out. At least 300 houses were flooded when a river in Verapaz overflowed its banks, Lopez Mendoza said.

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