Guatemala volcano death toll rises as explosions ramp up

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A smoke column forced rescuers to evacuate the village of San Miguel Los Lotes on Tuesday.

Explosions are intensifying at Guatemala’s Fuego volcano as emergency crews continue the search Wednesday for nearly 200 people reported missing.

More pyroclastic flow — a nasty mix of ash, rock and volcanic gases that can be much more dangerous than lava — is streaming down the volcano once again threatening villages southeast of the volcano, Guatemala’s National Institute of Seismology, Vulcanology, Meteorology and Hydrology (Insivumeh) said in a statement.

“The conditions are extremely critical at this moment,” the agency’s director Eddy Sanchez said in a televised press conference on Tuesday.

Search and rescue operations were temporarily suspended Tuesday when rescuers, police officers and volunteers were forced to evacuate as strong explosions in the volcano began.

Some explosions sent ash plume 16,405 feet into the sky, according to Insivumeh.

The volcano is about 25 miles southwest of the capital, Guatemala City, and near the colonial city of Antigua.

Three days after the Fuego volcano exploded, several towns remain covered in thick ash and rescuers scramble navigating the steaming debris.

At least 192 people remain missing and at least 75 have died, according to Sergio Cabañas, the executive secretary of Guatemala’s National Coordination for Disaster Reduction.

Only 23 victims have been identified, including two girls ages 3 and 6, Guatemala’s National Institute of Forensic Sciences (INACIF) said in a statement.

It’s unclear whether some of the people missing are among the unidentified bodies, Cabañas said.

“We are not only talking about what has been described as the volcano’s biggest eruption since 1974. We are talking about a tragedy, a national mourning,” Guatemala President Jimmy Morales said.

Children injured treated in the US

Twelve people severely wounded since the eruption will receive medical attention in the United States and in Mexico, President Morales said.

Six children will be treated for severe burns at Shriners Hospitals for Children in Galveston, Texas, the hospital said in a statement.

The children will fly to Texas aboard a US Air Force plane by late Wednesday, Guatemala and hospital officials said.

An emergency medical team from the hospital had been deployed to Guatemala Monday and has since then been treating the injured on the ground, it said in a statement.

Six other patients will be transferred to Mexico, Morales said.

Volcano’s aftermath by the numbers

The eruption of Volcan de Fuego, which means fire volcano, was visible even from space as satellite footage showed a massive dark gray ash cloud.

Here’s what the disaster in Guatemala looks like, according to Guatemala’s government disaster agency.

  • More than 1.7 million people affected by the volcano eruption
  • 46 people injured
  • 3,271 people have been evacuated
  • 2,625 people living in shelters
  • 75 people killed
  • 192 people missing

Desperate search for survivors

Recovery workers have had difficulty breathing in the hazardous conditions. And heat from the ground has been so intense that the soles of some firefighters’ boots were tearing off, and they were having to walk on wooden planks.

“It is very, very difficult due to the fact that it’s very, very hot,” volunteer firefighter Mario Cifuentes said. “The soil is very unstable. We cannot be walking around. … The shoes, they’ve been completely destroyed because of the heat.”

A video released by Guatemala’s National Civil Police shows an officer rescuing a baby girl from a home covered in volcanic ash. The baby appeared to be safe and unharmed.

Ash and gases have covered large areas of ground, said Diego Ibarguen, who works for a firefighter support organization and flew a drone over areas awash in ash.

“Basically there’s no houses left, and to my assumption there’s nobody left there … except the people doing the search and rescue,” he said. “The sad news is there’s a bunch of recovery of bodies of children and adults there.”

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