Rescuers suspended search and recovery efforts on Thursday at villages devastated by the eruption of Guatemala’s Volcano of Fire, leaving people with missing loved ones distraught and prompting some to do the risky work themselves.
Conred, the national disaster agency, said climatic conditions and still-hot volcanic material were making it dangerous for rescuers, and it was also taking into account the fact that 72 hours had passed since Sunday’s eruption.
That is the window beyond which officials had earlier said it would be extremely unlikely to find any survivors amid the ash, mud and other debris that buried homes up to their rooftops.
“It rained very hard yesterday… The soil is unstable,” said Pablo Castillo, a spokesman for national police.
Guatemalan prosecutors ordered an investigation into whether emergency protocols were followed properly, as many residents were caught with little or no time to evacuate.
Troublesome downpours and more volcanic activity had been hindering searches, but when teams have been able to work in the hardest hit areas, the death toll has continued to tick upward. The official number of confirmed dead was raised by 10 to 109 in the early evening, with about 200 more believed to be missing.
Oscar Chavez trekked over a mountain with his father and younger brother to search for his brother Edgar, sister-in-law Sandra and four-year-old nephew Josue in the hamlet of San Miguel Los Lotes, which was almost entirely wiped out by the volcanic flows. They have not been heard from since the eruption.
“We looked for them in shelters, hospitals, everywhere, but we did not find them,” said Mr Chavez, 34, wiping a tear from his eye as the others used sticks and bits of broken boards to dig at the collapsed, ash-filled home. “So, better for us to come here.”
A group of police officers saw what the family was doing and came to lend shovels and help with the digging.
A dozen other families also arrived to search the homes. Before Thursday they had been unable to access the area while rescuers were working.
Mr Chavez’s younger brother was angry that there were no longer any disaster workers at the scene while a little way downhill heavy machinery was being used to clear a road blocked by ash.
At a shelter set up in a school in the nearby city of Escuintla, workers fastened colourful ID bracelets on the wrists of people who were among several thousand displaced by the eruption.
The United States announced it was sending emergency aid, including financial resources, to help meet food, water and sanitation needs.
Washington also dispatched aircraft to help transport burn victims to Florida and Texas. Late on Wednesday, a US Air Force C-17 carried six Guatemalan children who were badly burned for treatment at the Shriner’s Hospital in Galveston, Texas.
White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders offered “deepest condolences” to victims and said the aid was being provided at the request of the government of Guatemala.