NAHUALA, Guatemala (AP) — When news came over the radio that a landslide had buried two pickup trucks and a bus along a major highway, Suagustino Pascual Tuy and others rushed to the rescue, picks and shovels in hand.
Digging through the mud, they managed to extract several people alive, including Pascual Tuy’s nephew. Suddenly the mountain above began crackling and a second cascade of rock and earth swept over the gathered crowd, turning many would-be rescuers into victims themselves.
Torrential rains from a tropical depression saturated the ground in parts of Guatemala and unleashed more than a dozen landslides over the weekend, killing at least 38 people and leaving many more unaccounted for.
Firefighters confirmed at least 20 dead in the village of Nahuala, where the twin slides hit a section of the Inter-American highway. About 50 more were believed buried under tons of rubble, regional fire department Maj. Otto Mazariegos said.
“Under the earth there is a bus that carried we don’t know how many people, and there are those who tried to help the victims of the first slide,” Mazariegos said.
Continuing bad weather forced authorities to suspend rescue efforts Sunday afternoon for fear of a third deadly landslide.
“We will return when the rain ceases,” Civil Protection spokesman David de Leon said. “It is difficult and dangerous to continue with the search.”
Pascual Tuy, a Nahuala police officer, said he shouted a warning as the mountain began to crumble the second time, but moments later the slide buried a number of rescuers. He ran for his life and the mud only caught his legs.
“The mountain was making noise like an earthquake, but people wouldn’t leave,” Pascual Tuy said. “They were being stubborn and didn’t get out.”
His nephew was in critical condition.
Down the same road, closer to Guatemala City, another slide partially buried another bus and killed at least 12 people. Four children and two adults died in slides elsewhere.
Pascual Tuy said there had been several landslides along the Inter-American highway in the last year, and authorities knew of the danger.
“Last year there was a landslide there, 15 days ago there was a landslide,” he said. “But now a big one came.”
President Alvaro Colom visited the area and said Monday would be declared a national day of mourning. He also ordered officials to close the road.
“There are several hillsides that are loose and could fall. So we ask the population to not go out, to avoid moving along the highways,” Colom said.
All told, there were 15 landslides at different spots along the Inter-American highway in a 48-hour period, Communications Minister Guillermo Castillo said.
Heavy rains from a tropical depression have pelted Guatemala for days, severing highways and prompting officials to evacuate thousands of people.
Associated Press Writer Olga R. Rodriguez in Mexico City contributed to this report.