MARACAY, Venezuela — At least 100 were known dead and up to 500 others were missing and feared dead after several days of torrential rains caused a mountainside to give way, unleashing a torrent of water, mud, trees and rocks onto a busy highway below, authorities said Tuesday.
Volunteers joined several thousand troops and civil defense workers in the search for survivors of the 10-foot-deep river of mud and rubble that on Sunday wiped out a 12-mile section of the highway that cuts through a national park area in northern Venezuela, sweeping away hundreds of cars and destroying five bridges in the process, police said.
A civil defense official said of the toll: "I can't give you official figures because we don't know ourselves. But if you say around 150 cars buried and at least 200 people killed, I don't think you can go wrong, according to what we're seeing now."
A spokesman for the Central Hospital of Maracay said that 150 people have been treated for injuries.
Army helicopters Tuesday continued to ferry food and medical supplies to the stricken area, in Henry Pittier National Park. The highway, which cuts through the mountains between Maracay and the popular beach resorts of Ocumare de la Costa and Bahia de Cata on Venezuela's northern coast, was filled with weekend travelers at the time of the landslide.
President Jaime Lusinchi, who has declared the area an emergency zone, met Tuesday with rescue officials in Maracay, about 60 miles west of the capital, Caracas. There were reports that the villages of El Limon, El Progreso and Guanita, between Maracay and the coast, were completely under water and that 250 people were missing after rains sent several rivers rushing over their banks, officials said.
At least 300 people have died and 20,000 are homeless as a result of the flooding, Venezuela's worst in decades, officials added.
"I saw about 200 cars that were either buried by the mud and the trees or that slid down the mountainside," said Luis Mora, a survivor of Sunday's landslide. "A crowded bus begun sliding over the abyss. Some of the passengers scrambled out the windows only to be swept away by a torrent of mud.
"One woman managed to get out of her car with her son," Mora added. "She had almost reached the safe part when a river of mud swept her away too. For a moment I managed to grab her arm, but I couldn't hold on to her and I watched as she went over the mountainside."
Carlos Tablante, a member of Congress who survived the slide, said that around 4 p.m. during a heavy rainstorm, he felt the earth shake, and "a slide of clay and rocks rushed down from the top of the mountain and crashed against the cars in the highway."
Air force meteorologists said the rains were caused by a tropical storm in the Caribbean north of Venezuela. They said more rain could be expected this week.