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Guatemala volcano: rescuers battle boiling ash to recover Fuego’s dead

In San Miguel Los Lotes close to Guatemala’s most active volcano, firefighters are working hard, but hope is slim

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Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Guatemala volcano: rescuers battle boiling ash to recover Fuego’s dead” was written by Nina Lakhani in San Miguel Los Lotes, for The Guardian on Tuesday 5th June 2018 04.31 UTC

A rescue crew emerges from an immense cloud of fine grey dust carrying two stretchers that hold bodies recovered from houses engulfed by blistering lava from the nearby erupting Fuego volcano.

The recovered bodies are tightly wrapped in dusty white sheets. One barely fills half the stretcher – a young victim of the most deadly volcanic eruption to hit Guatemala in decades.

The official death toll from the Fuego disaster is 70 but the final number is likely to be far higher, with scores of people missing from dozens of communities cut off by the devastation.

‘It is terrible up there’

In the rural community of San Miguel Los Lotes, a group of municipal firefighters pulled out out 15 bodies on Monday morning, including four children and their pregnant mother who didn’t have time to escape the powerful pyroclastic flows – fast-moving mixtures of gas and volcanic matter discharged by the exploding volcano.

Another rescue team recovered 14 people, including several children, and reported encountering eight- to 10-metre high mounds of volcanic ash. The most common cause of death was asphyxia, followed by burns.

“The houses became ovens, and the village a crematorium. There are no survivors,” says volunteer firefighter Francisco Flores.

The ash-covered landscape in the aftermath of the eruption of Volcan de Fuego in Guatemala.
The ash-covered landscape in the aftermath of the eruption of Volcan de Fuego in Guatemala.
Photograph: Juan Diego Alvarez

“There is so much ash it’s like a massive beach but with trees and rocks thrown in, it’s terrible up there,” adds Flores while taking a break to eat a sandwich and close his eyes for a few minutes by the side of the road.

Even the maize crops and vegetation bordering the snaking highway are covered in a dense layer of the grey ash that has turned the lush landscape into something that resembles a post-apocalyptic scene from a science fiction film.

Beside Flores rests Angel Solis, another volunteer, who is comforting a terrified puppy the crew found hiding under a bed in a house where the rest of the family were killed. On Monday, rescue workers tenderly carried out to safety several injured dogs, a pig, ducks and chickens, but no humans.

This entire hillside community has been devastated by Sunday’s eruption which took place without warning just before midday. The toxic mix of lava, ash and gas engulfed entire houses inside which dozens and dozens of people are feared to have been trapped as they prepared to eat lunch.

Those who managed to escape have sought refuge in makeshift shelters set-up in churches and schools in the nearby town of Escuintla.

People carry the coffins of seven people who died during the eruption of the Volcan de Fuego.
People carry the coffins of seven people who died during the eruption of the Volcan de Fuego.
Photograph: Luis Soto/AP

‘Shall I go to the morgue?’

Isabel Pineda, 25, spent all morning going from shelter to shelter looking for her younger sister who lived in a small house on the main road into San Miguel. But she could not find Patricia Pineda, 21, a business administration student, and her phone is switched off. No one has heard from her since the volcano erupted.

From the cordon, Pineda points out where the house was, but in its place is nothing but clouds of grey dust. Beyond the dust, the road is ruined and inaccessible. “No one is coming out of there alive, they should check in the morgue,” says one rescue worker in a hushed tone.

Fuego – which means fire in Spanish – is located less than 50km west of the capital Guatemala City and is one of the most active volcanos in Central America. Sunday’s eruption was the second so far this year.

The build-up of energy inside the volcano generated an explosion that resulted in a second, lower crater forming alongside the spewing Fuego basin. The torrent of molten lava stretched at least five miles long crushing bridges, roads and buildings in its path. The lava reached record temperatures of about 700C.

Employing a mix of heavy machinery, shovels and picks, the rescue workers have cleared narrow paths in order to try and safely access houses, but 24 hours after the initial eruption a hundred or so homes in this village alone remain blanketed in volcanic matter and too dangerous to enter.

“Every time we lift off a metal roof a huge gush of steam rises out of the building,” rescue worker Juan Diego Alvarez tells the Guardian. “The ash is just too hot for us to work.” Nearby lie several pairs of abandoned burnt boots, melted by the boiling ash.

The rescue efforts have been hampered by further eruptions, poor visibility, rain and the unbearable heat trapped within the volcanic ash. The fate of dozens of smaller settlements constructed on higher plots around the volcano remains unknown as the conditions are too dangerous for rescuers to attempt to get close.

Image of an ash-covered town in the aftermath of the eruption of the Fuego volcano
Image of an ash-covered town in the aftermath of the eruption of the Fuego volcano
Photograph: Juan Diego Alvarez

Authorities fear that heavy rains expected later this week could turn tonnes of ash into rivers of mud strong enough to hurl bodies and debris down the foothills.

Meanwhile the morgues are filling up.

Juan Ortiz, 60, cycles towards the cordon where hundreds of soldiers, police officers, firefighters and volunteers are waiting for conditions to improve so they can resume the search for victims. His 28-year-old son is missing. Earlier, Ortiz snuck through security to reach his son’s house. “It’s completely covered in grey sand, the whole house, do you think the authorities will find him or shall I go to the morgue?”

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Trump May Pardon Military Men Accused Or Convicted Of War Crimes

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump has asked for files to be prepared on pardoning several U.S. military members accused of or convicted of war crimes, including one slated to stand trial on charges of shooting unarmed civilians while in Iraq, the New York Times reported on Saturday.


Trump requested the immediate preparation of paperwork needed, indicating he is considering pardons for the men around Memorial Day on May 27, the report said, citing two unnamed U.S. officials. Assembling pardon files normally takes months, but the Justice Department has pressed for the work to be completed before that holiday weekend, one of the officials said.

One request is for Special Operations Chief Edward Gallagher of the Navy SEALs, scheduled to stand trial in coming weeks on charges of shooting unarmed civilians and killing an enemy captive with a knife while deployed in Iraq.

Also believed to be included is the case of Major Mathew Golsteyn, an Army Green Beret accused of killing an unarmed Afghan in 2010, the Times said.

Reuters could not immediately identify a way to contact Gallagher and Golsteyn.

The newspaper reported that the cases of other men are believed to be included in the paperwork, without naming them.

The Department of Justice declined to comment on the report, while the White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Legal experts cited in the report said that pardoning several accused and convicted war criminals, including some who have not yet gone to trial, has not been done in recent history, and some worried such pardons could erode the legitimacy of military law.

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Migrant Crisis

Trump Administration Considers Flying Migrants Across Country to Relieve Border Crowding

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Migrants wait in El Paso, Texas, to board a van to take them to a processing center on May 16. PHOTO: PAUL RATJE/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES

The Trump administration may begin flying asylum-seeking families at the southern U.S. border across the country to have their initial claims processed, a Customs and Border Protection official said Friday.


For months, immigration authorities have been shuttling newly arrested migrants—mostly families and children from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador—between border stations as facilities have become overwhelmed. Migrants have routinely been bussed hundreds of miles from the border in Southern California or El Paso, Texas, to as far away as Tucson, Ariz., before authorities process and then release them to aid groups.

Now, plans are being laid for the air transportation of parents and children out of overcrowded stations to other locations in the U.S., including northern and coastal states with Border Patrol offices that have capacity, if the flow of families doesn’t diminish, the CBP official said.

“This is an emergency. The entire system is overwhelmed,” the official said. “We are just trying to safely get them out of our facilities as quickly as possible.”

Border Patrol officials have flown nearly 1,000 migrants from overcrowded processing centers and stations in the Rio Grande Valley to nearby Del Rio, Texas, and San Diego since last Friday, another U.S. official said Friday.

The private, contracted flights have cost between $21,000 and $65,000 each and can carry a maximum of 135 people, that official said.

Mark Bogen, the mayor of Broward County in South Florida said Friday that he was told by local law-enforcement to expect as many as 135 migrants to be flown to the area and released by the Border Patrol after their asylum claims are processed.

Mr. Bogen said Broward County doesn’t have the resources to manage such an influx and that its shelters are already crowded with homeless local residents.

“We don’t know if these are seniors or kids,” he said of the potential migrant arrivals. “We were provided one thing: the number 135.”

The CBP official said no migrants were currently being flown to Florida. “We are in preliminary planning stages,” the official said.

The Trump administration contends that the record number of adults with children presenting themselves for asylum has brought the border infrastructure to a breaking point. CBP said on Friday that the agency had averaged 4,500 apprehensions per day over the preceding week. Some 248,000 migrants travelling as families illegally entered the U.S. between October, the start of the federal fiscal year, and April—more than in any prior full year.

Democrats, who control the House of Representatives, have blamed President Trump for exacerbating the flood of families to the southern border by cutting aid to Central America and threatening to close the border altogether.

The White House is seeking $4.5 billion in emergency border funding from Congress along with changes to asylum laws that the Trump administration says would make it easier to detain families longer, process applications more quickly, and deter more people from making the journey to the U.S.

Democratic lawmakers have refused to fund asylum policies they consider inhumane, but indicated late Thursday that they would consider funding some of the administration’s requests, making a counteroffer that excludes funding for detention beds, a Congressional aide said.

(Reporting by Wall Street Journal)

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Trump Administration Rejects Subpoena For Tax Returns

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WASHINGTON (AP) — The Trump administration is missing another deadline to produce President Donald Trump’s tax returns. A top House Democrat says he expects to take the administration to court as early as next week over the matter.


Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin (mih-NOO’-shin) says in a letter Friday that he will not comply with the subpoena from the House Ways and Means Committee for six years of Trump’s tax returns because the request “lacks a legitimate legislative purpose.”

Mnuchin’s rejection of the subpoena had been expected. Earlier Friday, Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal had said, “We will likely proceed to court as quickly as next week.”

Democrats are seeking Trump’s tax returns under a 1924 law that directs the IRS to furnish such information to the chairs of Congress’ tax-writing committees.

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