A fiery volcanic eruption in Guatemala has sent lava flowing into rural communities, killing at least 25 as rescuers struggled to reach people where homes and roads were charred and blanketed with ash.
The death toll rose late on Sunday with 18 bodies found in the community of San Miguel Los Lotes, disaster agency spokesman David de Leon said, adding to the seven victims previously confirmed elsewhere earlier in the day.
At least 20 people were injured, and authorities have said they feared the death toll could rise with an undetermined number of people unaccounted for.
Lava and ash
The Volcan de Fuego, or “Volcano of Fire”, exploded in a hail of ash and molten rock, blanketing nearby villages in heavy ash and later lava began flowing down the mountain’s flank and across homes and roads.
Eddy Sanchez, director of the country’s seismology and volcanology institute, said the flows reached temperatures of about 700 °C.
Dramatic video showed a fast-moving lahar, or flow of pyroclastic material and slurry, slamming into and partly destroying a bridge on a road between Sacatepequez and Escuintla.
Sacatepezuez television published images of a charred landscape where the lava came into contact with homes. Three bodies lay partially buried in ash-coloured debris from the volcano, which lies about 27 miles from Guatemala City.
Other videos from local media showed residents walking barefoot and covered in muddy residue.
“Not everyone was able to get out. I think they ended up buried,” Consuelo Hernandez, a resident of the village of El Rodeo, told the newspaper Diario de Centroamerica. “Where we saw the lava fall, we ran to a hillside” to escape, she added.
Homes were still burning in El Rodeo late on Sunday, and a charred stench hung over the town.
Hundreds of rescue workers, including firefighters, police and soldiers, worked to help any survivors and recover any more bodies amid the still-smoking lava.
Firefighters said they had seen some people who were trapped, but roads were cut by pyroclastic flows and they had been unable to reach them.
Amid darkness and rain, the rescue effort was suspended until early Monday morning, municipal firefighters’ spokesman Cecilio Chacaj said.
Guatemala’s disaster agency said 3,100 people had evacuated nearby communities, and ash fall from the eruption was affecting an area with about 1.7 million of country’s 15 million or so people. Shelters were opened for those forced to flee.
“Currently the volcano continues to erupt and there exists a high potential for (pyroclastic) avalanches of debris,” the disaster agency said late on Sunday via Twitter, quoting Sanchez, the director of the seismology and volcanology institute.
Guatemalan president Jimmy Morales said he would issue a declaration of a state of emergency to be approved by Congress and urged people to heed warnings from emergency officials.
Ash fell on the Guatemala City area as well as the departments of Sacatepequez, Chimaltenango and Escuintla, which are in south-central Guatemala around the volcano. Streets and houses were covered in the colonial town of Antigua, a popular tourist destination.
Aviation authorities closed the capital’s international airport because of the danger posed to planes by the ash.
One of Central America’s most active volcanoes, the conical Volcan de Fuego reaches an altitude of 3,763 metres above sea level at its peak.
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