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Shifting From Recovery to Salvage

Guatemalans give up hope of finding loved ones buried under slides triggered by Hurricane Stan. The regional death toll is at 800.

October 11, 2005|Sam Enriquez | Times Staff Writer

PANABAJ, Guatemala — The rains finally stopped Monday, five days after rivers of mud and rock buried most of this lakeside village and too late to recover hundreds of bodies believed buried as deep as 20 feet.

Torrential rains have killed about 800 people across Central America since Hurricane Stan struck Mexico last week, authorities said, with most of the dead believed concentrated in this highland region of Guatemala at the edge of Lake Atitlan. In this town alone, some 500 people remain missing.

Government and volunteer recovery teams left Panabaj on Sunday after digging out 73 bodies. With the mud hardened by Monday, dozens of residents, having given up hope of finding their loved ones, returned to salvage what few possessions they could.

Francisco Petzey stood Monday afternoon in the remains of his two-room stucco house and held a muddy piece of lumber. He was barefoot, dressed in shorts and a shirt.

"I lost everything," said the 30-year-old truck driver, who also sold fish, chickens and potatoes from a tiny cinderblock storefront that was destroyed.

Petzey had left for work when the mudslides began before dawn Wednesday. His wife and two children climbed on a dresser and screamed for help, before being swept away hundreds of yards. He said he cried when he learned from neighbors that his family had survived.

Mud now fills much of the house that once held furniture, clothing and the rest of his family's possessions, and he said he wonders what he will do next.

Beyond the walls that are still standing, he said, "I'm trying to see what I can save."

Guatemalan government workers ferried boatloads of flour, sugar, bottled water, crackers, milk and dried noodles across 15 miles of the lake to supply the 3,000 people left homeless, who are staying in churches, schools and other temporary shelters in Santiago Atitlan, a 20-minute walk from Panabaj.

"What we really need are psychologists for the children who are traumatized," said Neri Medina, 23, who directed scores of volunteers unloading supplies from government trucks onto boats bound for Santiago Atitlan.

Pickup trucks ferried residents Monday between Panabaj and Santiago Atitlan, two towns that sit at the lake's edge, ringed by lush green hillsides and three volcanoes.

Heavy-equipment operators cleared debris from roads, and Panabaj residents took advantage of the break in the weather to return to their former neighborhoods. Along the main road, many of the structures remaining in Panabaj were buried nearly to their roofs in mud.

Authorities believe that 200 homes in the town of 3,000 people were lost.

Guatemalan President Oscar Berger called for three days of mourning, and Vice President Eduardo Stein estimated that as many as 3 million people in the country had been displaced by the storms.

"This is a catastrophe," Stein said. "We need to unite all Guatemalans."

Local Mayas, guerrillas and government forces were at odds during the country's 35-year civil war, which ended in 1996. Although military personnel helped load supply boats across the lake at Solola, none were working in recovery or assistance in Panabaj or Santiago Atitlan, where soldiers killed 13 unarmed people in 1990.

Juan Perez Saquic, 33, returned Monday to where his house had stood. He lost his wife and two of his four children, ages 7 and 9.

"I don't know what I'm gong to do," he said. "But I still have two children, and they're the ones I have to fight for."

Special correspondent Alex Renderos contributed to this report.

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