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Colombia Avalanche Toll Rises to 175; Storms Hinder Rescuers

September 29, 1987|From Times Wire Services

MEDELLIN, Colombia — Thunderstorms and threats of another avalanche Monday hampered rescue workers digging for victims buried under a mud slide that killed at least 175 people, including 43 children, in a slum area of this industrial center, Colombia's second-largest city.

"We think the final death count could reach 300," said Mayor William Jaramillo Gomez of Medellin, a city of 2 million, 160 miles northwest of the capital city of Bogota. No one has been found alive since Sunday night, he added.

Officials said that at least 80 people were injured and 1,500 others were forced to flee after a week of rains triggered landslides Sunday that buried about 100 homes in the impoverished barrio of Villa Tina.

Late Monday, civil defense coordinator Humberto Ramirez said that 175 bodies had been recovered from under tons of mud and debris.

However, Ramirez said the search for more bodies by rescue workers using picks and shovels was interrupted by a strong midday thunderstorm and fear of new landslides.

"The rain and threat of new avalanches forced us to stop rescue operations for the moment. We cannot risk more lives," he said.

Heavy earthmoving equipment could not be brought in for fear of killing victims who possibly survived the avalanche that swept down from Sugar Loaf Peak on the outskirts of Medellin, which lies in a broad valley high in the Andes Mountains.

Officials said that among the victims were 43 children, some buried while attending their first Holy Communion parties.

"There were two tremendous cracks or explosions, like airplanes crashing into the mountain," survivor Juan Jairo Larrea said. "Then, there was a long roar as the slope slid into the gorge where Villa Tina lay."

Ramirez said authorities recently had tried in vain to evacuate residents from the hillside shantytown because steady rains had softened "the 80-degree slopes of yellow clay there."

Marta Lucia Serna, 33, who lost two children in the mud slide, said: "Sure, they told us to leave but we are stubborn. Besides, we do not have anywhere else to go."

Mayor Jaramillo said the overcrowded slum was the "result of an uncontrollable exodus of persons from rural areas to the city in search of work and better living conditions."

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