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Some relieved to find bodies as hundreds feared dead in Guatemala landslide

Image: The wreckage of a car is seen at an area affected by a mudslide in Santa Catarina Pinula, on the outskirts of Guatemala City, October 4, 2015. REUTERS/Josue Decavele

By Enrique Pretel and Sofia Menchu

SANTA CATARINA PINULA, Guatemala (Reuters) – Despair in the search for hundreds of people buried in a landslide that swallowed part of a Guatemalan town is so deep that some relatives feel lucky simply to have found the bodies of their loved ones.

Families on Sunday lit candles for relatives engulfed by a mass of earth and rubble that crashed down on a neighborhood in Santa Catarina Pinula. Rescue teams have found more than 120 bodies and up to 300 others are missing and feared dead.

“I feel lucky because other families can’t even cry over their dead,” said Alejandro Lopez, a 45-year-old taxi driver, who recovered the bodies of two daughters and a grandson.
“But I would like to find the mother of my daughters,” he said inside a small Evangelical church near Santa Catarina Pinula.

Authorities said on Sunday they had so far recovered 122 bodies in the town on the southeastern flank of Guatemala City.

Heavy rains sent earth and rock cascading over homes and trapping residents inside on Thursday night. No survivors have been found this weekend despite the efforts of around 1,800 rescue workers sifting through the rubble.

Rains hampered search and rescue efforts on Sunday.

In the town’s crowded cemetery, families sobbed as they placed wreaths on hastily-sealed tombs stacked in walls, where simple inscriptions in cement listed the names of the dead.

Reginaldo Gomez buried his grandson Andres in one of the tombs and asked that a space be set aside nearby for the boy’s mother and sister, still missing among the mounds of earth and shattered buildings that litter the valley floor.

Along with his wife Angela, Gomez had earlier on Sunday mourned the four-year-old boy, garlanded with flowers in a small coffin lined with satin, at a modest home in Guatemala City.

“Andres was a happy, sweet, mischievous child but he isn’t here any more. He isn’t here and we have to stay here without them,” Angela said.

The El Cambray II neighborhood battered by the landslide lies at the bottom of a deep ravine ringed by trees.

Authorities had flagged risks of flooding and landslides for El Cambray II, saying in a report last year that construction permits should never have been granted for the neighborhood.

The report also recommended local authorities consider relocating families living in the area, but as in many other towns in the impoverished Central American country with a history of catastrophic landslides, residents remained.

In 2005, hundreds of people were killed when torrential rains triggered a landslide that buried the village of Panabaj. Many of the bodies were never recovered.

The question of how to avoid these disasters has reared up just as Guatemala is preparing to elect a new president in a second round run-off on Oct. 25.

The government has been in disarray for months. President Otto Perez was forced to resign and was arrested on corruption charges last month, with his former vice president Alejandro Maldonado stepping in until the election winner takes office.

Doctors at a shelter in Santa Catarina Pinula worried more about the immediate fallout for survivors of the disaster, describing widespread cases of emotional trauma.

“Mourning is very difficult without a corpse,” said Elser Oronez, 41, a senior physician at the shelter. “Now comes the hardest part for them.”

(Writing by Dave Graham and Alexandra Alper; Editing by Kieran Murray and Cynthia Osterman)

Copyright 2015 Thomson Reuters. Click for Restrictions.

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