World

Guatemala volcano death toll reaches at least 62

Rescuers have pulled at least 10 people alive from ash drifts and mud flows that poured down the slopes of Guatemala's erupting Volcano of Fire, but officials said at least 62 people were dead.

'The lava was already here,' when officials issued warning, resident says

Police officers carry a victim in the ash-covered village of San Miguel Los Lotes, Guatemala, on Monday, a day after the eruption of the Fuego volcano. (Johan Ordonez/AFP/Getty Images)

Rescuers on Monday pulled at least 10 people alive from ash drifts and mud flows that poured down the slopes of Guatemala's erupting Volcano of Fire, and recovered 62 bodies of its victims. 

The director of Guatemala's National Institute of Forensic Science, Fanuel Garcia, said only 13 of those bodies so far have been identified. 

They were found in the hamlets of Los Lotes and El Rodeo, he said. 

The death toll had wavered in the 30s prior to the update on Monday afternoon. 

A rescue worker helps a woman covered with ash after the eruption in El Rodeo, on Sunday. (Fabricio Alonzo/Reuters)

Residents of El Rodeo, about 12 kilometres downslope from the crater, said they were caught unaware by fast-moving pyroclastic flows when the volcano west of Guatemala City exploded Sunday, sending towering clouds of ash kilometres into the air.

Searing flows of ash mixed with water and debris rushed down its flanks, blocking roads and burning homes.

The charred landscape left behind was still too hot to touch, or even to pull bodies from in many parts, melting the shoes of rescuers. Workers told of finding bodies so thickly coated with ash they appeared to be statues. Inhaling ash or hot volcanic gases can asphyxiate people quickly.

Rescuers struggle to reach affected communities as lava hits surrounding region 0:58

Hilda Lopez said the volcanic mud swept into her village of San Miguel Los Lotes, just below the mountain's flanks. She still didn't know where her mother or her sister are.

"We were at a party, celebrating the birth of a baby, when one of the neighbours shouted at us to come out and see the lava that was coming," Lopez recalled. "We didn't believe it, and when we went out the hot mud was already coming down the street."

"My mother was stuck there, she couldn't get out," said Lopez, weeping and holding her face in her hands.

Disaster agency spokesman David de Leon said 18 bodies had been found in San Miguel Los Lotes.

Lopez's husband, Joel Gonzalez, said his father was had been unable to escape and was believed to be "buried back there, at the house."

Some locals said they never learned of the danger until it was upon them — and were critical of authorities.

"Conred [the disaster agency] never told us to leave. When the lava was already here they passed by in their pickup trucks telling at us to leave, but the cars did not stop to pick up the people," said Rafael Letran, a resident of El Rodeo. "The government is good at stealing, but when it comes to helping people they lack spark."

Eddy Sanchez, director of the country's seismology and volcanology institute, said the flows reached temperatures of about 700 C.

      1 of 0

      Among the fatalities were four people, including a disaster agency official, killed when lava set a house on fire in El Rodeo, according to Sergio Cabanas, head of the country's disaster agency. Two children were burned to death as they watched the volcano's second eruption this year from a bridge, he said.

      Dramatic video showed a fast-moving lahar, or flow of pyroclastic material and slurry, slamming into and partly destroying a bridge on a highway between Sacatepequez and Escuintla.

      The disaster agency said 3,265 people had been evacuated from the area.

      Police officers help the rescue effort in El Rodeo village. (Noe Perez/AFP/Getty Images)

      Ash from the volcano, which lies about 44 kilometres west of Guatemala City, fell on the capital area as well as the departments of Sacatepequez, Chimaltenango and Escuintla. Streets and houses were covered in the colonial town of Antigua, a popular tourist destination.

      Aviation authorities closed Guatemala City's international airport because of the danger posed to planes, but the airport was reopened at mid-morning Monday after workers cleared away ash.

      One of Central America's most active volcanos, the conical Volcan de Fuego reaches an altitude of 3,763 metres above sea level at its peak.​

      With files from CBC News