By Sofia Menchu and Enrique Pretel
SANTA CATARINA PINULA, Guatemala (Reuters) – Hopes faded of finding any remaining survivors of a massive landslide in Guatemala that killed at least 73 people, even as families scrabbled through rubble hoping to find the bodies of loved-ones, with hundreds of others still missing.
Distraught relatives of the victims shoveled alongside diggers through the mounds of earth that destroyed homes in Santa Catarina Pinula on the southeastern flank of Guatemala City after the collapse of a hillside on Thursday night.
Every fresh batch of earth turned up by the diggers held more personal belongings, from mattresses and books to toys and Christmas decorations, reminders of around 350 people who authorities said were still unaccounted for.
Clutching photos of loved-ones, family members stood in line outside a makeshift morgue near the excavation site, some of them crying, to see if they recognized any corpses.
“This is the worst thing that has happened to us,” said Ana Maria Escobar, a 48-year-old housewife, sobbing as she waited for news of 21 missing family members who lived in the town that she had left only a year ago.
“So far only my sister-in-law has been found,” she added.
One digger unearthed the body of a little girl with scratch marks on her arms and legs, which rescue workers said may have been signs of her struggles to escape. People looking on cried out to prevent the digger from destroying her body.
Gaby Ramirez, an 18-year-old courier, had been searching for her brother with shovel in hand since 6 a.m., after the landslide buried a neighbor’s house he was visiting.
“I don’t hope to find him alive, but I do hope to find his body and bury him,” she said. “I have to bury him, I can’t leave him there.”
Loosened by rain, tons of earth, rock and trees had cascaded onto a neighborhood of the town known as El Cambray II that lies near the bottom of a ravine, flattening houses and trapping residents who had gone home for the night.
Some houses were buried under about 50 feet (15 meters) of earth, and Guatemalan disaster agency Conred said it doubted any other survivors would be found.
“Hope is the last think you lose, so we hope to find someone alive,” said Guatemala’s defense minister Williams Mansilla, though he also acknowledged that the likelihood was very low.
At last count, the Attorney General’s office reported 73 dead via Twitter, though fears that hundreds more remain trapped threaten to make the landslide one of the worst natural disasters to hit Central America in recent years.
Among the dead were 17 children, and there were at least 26 people reported as injured.
On Friday there were reports of family members receiving text messages of buried survivors asking to be rescued.
Authorities said they did not rescue a single survivor on Saturday despite a team of around 1,800 volunteers, soldiers and firemen. But some 400 survivors had been evacuated in total from the site since the tragedy, they added.
The search was scheduled to end by around 7.30 p.m. local time, and in keeping with international protocol, it would be relaunched for at least one more day on Sunday.
Due to the unstable terrain and wet weather, volunteers would no longer be allowed to assist in the search on Sunday.
The tragedy has hit Guatemala after weeks of political turmoil, just as it prepares to elect a new president.
Last month, outgoing President Otto Perez was forced to stand down and was arrested on corruption charges.
In October 2005, heavy rainfall triggered a devastating landslide in Panabaj in the southwest of the Central American country, burying the village. Hundreds of people are believed to have died, and many of the bodies were never recovered.
(Additional reporting by Alexandra Alper and Anahi Rama,; Editing by Dave Graham, Alison Williams and Bernard Orr)
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