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Authorities in Guatemala: search for survivors ‘almost impossible’

June 6, 2018

Under a grey cloud, rescue teams search for missing people after the powerful eruption of the Fuego Volcano in Guatemala, which left at least 69 dead and thousands evacuated.

Guatemalan authorities admitted, however, that due to the nature of the eruption that swept various nearby towns with an avalanche of mud and ash, it will be almost impossible to find survivors.

Picture of the Fuego Volcano taken from San Miguel Los Lotes, a village in Escuintla Department, about 35 km southwest of Guatemala City. Johan Ordóñez / AFP

“We’ll continue until we find the last victim. Even if we don’t know many victims there are, we’ll check the area as many times as we need to,” Sergio Cabañas, director of the Coordinator for the Reduction of Disasters (Conred), told AFP.

On Sunday, Fuego Volcano – 3,763 meters high and 35 km southeast of the capital –registered a powerful eruption that has left 69 dead, according to data from the National Forensic Sciences Institute (Inacif).

Police officers carry a victim in the ash-covered village of San Miguel Los Lotes. Johan Ordóñez / AFP

On Tuesday, a small column of ash crowned the volcano before the attentive gaze of rescuers, who covered their noses and mouths to protect themselves from the dust that rises everywhere. In the areas affected by the volcanic avalanche, the streets are covered by ash and everything is filled with dust.

Inacif has indicated that only 17 of the dead have been identified thus far, through “fingerprints and physical characteristics.”

A woman attends the wake of seven victims who died following the eruption of the Fuego volcano, at the morgue in Alotenango municipality, Sacatepequez, about 65 km southwest of Guatemala City, on June 4, 2018. Johan Ordóñez / AFP

The tragedy has left 46 injured, 3,271 evacuated and 1,877 sheltered in the departments of Escuintla, Sacatepéquez and Chimaltenango, the most seriously affected by the volcanic eruption, according to Conred.

Difficult to find survivors

Cabañas reiterated that the authorities have not been able to establish a number of missing people, and the hope of finding survivors has all but vanished.

“If they’re trapped in the pyroclastic flow, it’s difficult to find them alive. There could even be calcified people and they won’t be found,” Cabañas said.

“We’ll continue until it’ll be necessary, always taking into account the security measures,” he added, alluding to the fact that the volcano’s slopes have accumulated great quantities of sediment that at any moment could detach and cause another catastrophe.

San Miguel Los Lotes. Johan Ordóñez / AFP

Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales also indicated on Monday night that the government will continue the search and rescue operation as long as it takes.

The presidency announced Tuesday that the government will begin setting up a rebuilding plan as soon as possible.

‘Active rest’

Eddy Sánchez, director of the state Institute of Volcanology, told AFP that after the strong eruption on Sunday, the volcano liberated “a lot of energy” and entered in a phase of “active rest.” This means that even though strong explosions could be generated, “they wouldn’t be catastrophic.”

The Guatemalan Congress approved a presidential decree to declare a state of public calamity in the departments of Escuintla, Sacatepéquez and Chimaltenango, the most affected and where the volcano is situated.

San Miguel Los Lotes. Johan Ordóñez / AFP

Pope Francis offered “prayers for all of those who suffer the consequences of that natural disaster” on Tuesday.

Fuego Volcano’s most recent eruption took place in January 2018.

This handout picture released by the National Police of Guatemala shows policemen during search operations around Volcano Fuego after an eruption in Guatemala on June 3, 2018. AFP photo / National Police of Guatemala / HO /

In September 2012, it provoked Guatemala’s most recent eruption-related emergency, causing the evacuation of 10,000 inhabitants settled in villages south of the volcano.

In Guatemala the volcanoes Santiaguito, to the west, and Pacaya, 20 km south of the capital, are also active.

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