Toll may rise while rescue workers extract bodies
At least 192 people are missing and over 75 are dead after the Fuego volcano in Guatemala suddenly erupted Sunday, Sergio Cabañas, the executive secretary of Guatemala’s National Coordination for Disaster Reduction said on Wednesday.
Towns and villages were engulfed by thick, heavy ash while hot gases, rock and ash raced down the volcano, killing dozens, erasing hillside communities, blocking roads and leaving behind steaming debris that rescuers had trouble navigating.
According to reports from various sources more than 1.7 million people have been affected by the Sunday’s eruption while more than 3000 people were evacuated from the affected areas.
On Tuesday, the residents and rescuers were shocked to see sudden explosion after volcanologists said the eruption which had sent ash up to 10 km in the sky on Sunday was over for the near future. Guatemala’s National Institute of Seismology had predicted of “no imminent eruption over the next few days”.
The fresh flows of ash, gas and rock spewing from the volcano, as well as seismic events have put the areas of El Jute and Las Lajas in danger. The disaster agency said, “This new flow will produce a curtain of ash” and will “principally disperse to the west and northwest following the direction of the wind,” the agency said.
Sergei Cabanas, the chief of Guatemala’s disaster Relief Agency, said that no evacuation alert was issued before the volcano erupted on Sunday. He also said that local residents had received training in emergency procedures but they were not able to implement them as the initial volcano activity happened too fast.
The volcano eruption generated pyroclastic flows- fast moving mixtures of very hot gas and volcanic matter- descending down the slopes, engulfing people in El rodeo and San Miguel Los Lotes.
Volcanologist Dr Janine Kripper told BBC that people should not underestimate the risk from pyroclastic flows and volcanic mudflows, known as lahars. He said, “They are extremely dangerous and deadly as well.”
The witnesses only realized how fast it is travelling as the flow is almost upon them. The speed lava, gas, smoke and dust travel depends on several factors, such as output rate of the volcano and the gradient of its slope. In some cases it reaches speed of 700 km/h, close to the speed of a commercial passenger aircraft.
Moreover, the gas and rock within a flow are heated to extreme temperatures, ranging between 200C and 700C. Victims directly on its path have little chance of escape.
Many of them were seen asking rescuers to give them a chance to identify the dead bodies before declaring them unidentified.
The dangers were compounded by heavy rain that could mix with ash to form acid rain or spawn mudslides or floods.
Dazed residents were seen conducting funerals for the dead while recovery workers brace for the likelihood of finding more bodies when they reach hillside areas overrun by the volcanic flow.