Survivors saw relatives swept away by huge waves or buried by debris after a huge landslide hit a rain-swollen river, triggering waves that essentially wiped a Chiapas hamlet off the map and left at least 16 people missing.
Residents of San Juan Grijalva told The Associated Press on Monday they had been awakened by a rumbling roar, and the sound of rocks rolling down from surrounding mountaintops on Sunday night, almost a week after massive flooding sent rivers over their banks in the southern Mexican states of Chiapas and neighboring Tabasco.
“It was a roar, like a helicopter was passing overhead,” recounted farmer Domingo Sanchez, 21. “We didn’t know what was happening, and then we went outside, and there were cracks opening the earth,” he said, apparently recounting the initial collapse of a nearby hillside into the river. “We ran up the hill … but soil kept coming down on us.”
For the next several hours, Sanchez, his mother, his wife and a cousin fought for their lives in a valley where the only salvation lay in getting to higher ground as the ground collapsed around them.
They reached the hilltop just in time to look across the valley and see a landslide cover the home of his grandparents. Sanchez believes at least nine of his relatives were buried.
A cousin, David Sanchez, 22, described the events he saw from his house in a different part of the village that once was home to about 600 people. He described two distinct waves – the first of which swept his mother about 200 meters (yards) downstream before he could rescue her. “It was an irresistible wave,” he said, describing the water pushed downstream from the initial impact of the landslide.
After climbing up a hillside to safety, in a moment of calm he and three friends briefly descended to rescue some possessions when the second wave – apparently the release of water briefly dammed up by the landslide – swept down the valley. “‘It swept away everything, trees, houses, everything,” Sanchez said. He believes that a total of about 40 people died in San Juan Grijalva.
Chiapas state Gov. Juan Sabines, who visited the scene, described one of the waves as a “mini-tsunami” and noted “this village practically disappeared.”
Helicopters searched the surrounding hills to rescue residents who fled to higher ground. Chiapas officials and the federal Interior Department placed the number of missing at 16. No bodies were immediately found.
The landslide was the latest blow after a week of devastating flooding and heavy rains that left 80 percent of Mexico’s Gulf coast state of Tabasco under water, destroying or damaging the homes of about half a million people.
On Monday, officials readied huge pumps to suck water from the inundated streets of the state capital, Villahermosa, while rescuers struggled to reach thousands still stranded days after one of the worst floods in Mexico’s history.
U.S. President George W. Bush shared his sympathy over the floods and suffering Monday with Mexican President Felipe Calderon.
U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Tony Garza said the U.S. had pledged US$300,000 (€207,000) in emergency assistance to Tabasco and Chiapas.
After Hurricane Katrina struck the U.S. in 2005, Mexico sent a convoy of about 200 unarmed soldiers and medical personnel across the border with portable kitchens and water treatment equipment to aid recovery efforts.
Officials also saw some signs of hope as the Grijalva and Carrizal rivers, which had risen as much as 2 meters (1.9 yards) above normal levels, began to subside slightly Monday, as did storm tides in the Gulf of Mexico.
But tens of thousands of hungry and sick storm victims still awaited food and aid. At least 20,000 people remained trapped on the rooftops of homes swallowed by floods.
Authorities said two more bodies were found Sunday in the waters covering much of the region. If the deaths are confirmed to have been caused by the flooding, the disaster’s death toll would stand at 10, not including those feared deaths from Monday’s landslide.
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