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Mudslide buries bus in Mexico

Dozens are trapped, with survival prospects unknown. More instability and another storm threaten rescuers.

July 05, 2007|Sam Enriquez and Carlos Martinez | Times Staff Writers

MEXICO CITY — Soldiers and civilian crews scrambled Wednesday to dig out dozens of people trapped beneath a mud-and-rock slide that buried a bus traveling on a remote highway in Puebla state southeast of the capital.

Rescuers reported that they had reached the bus shortly before nightfall, but officials said they were still waiting to hear whether anyone had survived.

About 500 soldiers and civilians, using shovels and heavy equipment, were involved in the rescue operation.

The bus was ferrying passengers on the 40-mile trip from Tehuacan to Tlacotepec along federal highway 150 in the central state of Puebla when the hillside gave way about 7 a.m., authorities said.

"The rocks fell first and then it was all dirt," Mario Jimenez told W Radio in a broadcast interview. He said he was driving behind the bus when the mudslide occurred.

A second mudslide forced passersby to abandon efforts to dig the bus out, a local firefighter told Reuters. The news agency said the mudslide covered nearly 500 feet of highway.

Better-equipped rescue crews began arriving hours later, slowed by curving highways in the Sierra Negra range.

Mexican President Felipe Calderon ordered his defense and interior secretaries to mobilize help at the scene, which was close to the town of San Miguel Eloxochitlan.

German Garcia, Puebla's state emergency services chief, said there were probably at least 40 people on the bus but that the number could be much higher.

"These transport services drive through communities along the highway and pick up people," Garcia said. "These buses are usually overloaded.... I hope we're wrong and that there weren't that many people on board."

The rainy season started within the last month. A new storm is forecast and would slow the rescue operation, he said.

"If it rains, we'll have to stop and wait until tomorrow," Garcia said, because of the danger of new slides.

"The geological makeup of the area and the amount of rain that's fallen in the last couple of weeks combined to make this happen," Garcia said.

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sam.enriquez@latimes.com

Cecilia Sanchez in The Times' Mexico City Bureau contributed to this report.

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