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Rescuers search for slide survivors in Mexico

Despite earlier fears, no deaths are yet confirmed in the remote village of Santa Maria Tlahuitoltepec, where tons of mud slammed into homes as residents slept. Eleven people are confirmed missing.

September 29, 2010|By Ken Ellingwood and Tracy Wilkinson, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Oaxaca, Mexico, and Mexico City — Rescue workers using megaphones to call out to survivors climbed through mud Tuesday in a slow, slogging search after a landslide crashed into a sleeping village in southern Mexico.

Despite fears of widespread loss of life in the town of Santa Maria Tlahuitoltepec, only a few people were missing by Tuesday evening. Poor road and weather conditions throughout the day had hampered rescue efforts and attempts to fathom the full scale of the slide. Swollen, chocolate-colored rivers swept over their banks in places. Some bridges were washed out.

By nightfall, the Oaxaca state governor, Ulises Ruiz, who had earlier said four people were confirmed dead and 12 missing, announced that in fact there were no confirmed deaths and that 11 people were missing. Rescuers in the town were still conducting house-to-house searches, but Ruiz said they had not found any bodies.

"We are without electricity, light, phone service," Donato Vargas, a community official in Santa Maria, said in a radio interview. He reported having so far counted 10 homes destroyed.

"We are going around, trying to call out to people, using megaphones," Vargas said. "We are used to landslides in this area, but we've never seen one like this."

Army and police emergency rescue crews struggled to reach the town, a remote area barely accessible in the best of times. Government teams tried to get to the region by helicopter six times, but driving rain and fog forced them to turn back, Ruiz said. Roads were blocked in places by smaller landslides, and at least one bridge had collapsed and another was dangerously weakened.

The slide was triggered by days of heavy rain spawned in part by Hurricane Karl and Tropical Storm Matthew. The waterlogged hill collapsed into Santa Maria just before 4 a.m.

Santa Maria is an agrarian village home to nearly 9,000 people, all Mixe, an indigenous group whose name derives from the word for "clouds" and who are often referred to as the people of the clouds, an allusion, perhaps, to how remotely they live.

The town is also the site of a well-known music school that teaches traditional regional music to young people as part of an elementary and high school program. About 500 students were believed to be housed at the school.

People in the area described seeing smashed homes, uprooted trees and backhoes chipping away at mountains of stone and mud. A handful of survivors were beginning to stream out of the village as best they could, toting children and small bags of belongings, said Sister Teresita of the nearby San Pedro and San Pablo Ayutla parish.

She and a group of nuns were trying to reach Santa Maria to help, she said in a telephone interview. "The firefighters and Red Cross and everyone is trying to get in."

Dozens of indigenous villages are scattered on hilltops throughout eastern Oaxaca, and residents said they feared more landslides because of the rain that fell nonstop for days.

Ruiz acknowledged that initial fears, including his own speculation of hundreds dead, had proved unfounded.

"We didn't have information; we couldn't confirm anything," he said. "We had no light and it was 4 in the morning."

Ellingwood reported from Oaxaca and Wilkinson from Mexico City. Cecilia Sanchez of The Times' Mexico City Bureau contributed to this report.

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