SANTA CATARINA PINULA, Guatemala (Reuters) - As many as 600 people are missing and at least nine are dead after a hillside collapsed on a town on the edge of Guatemala City, burying homes in earth and sludge and sparking a desperate hunt for survivors on Friday.
Loosened by heavy rains, tons of dirt and trees tumbled onto Santa Catarina Pinula in a valley on the southeastern flank of the capital late on Thursday, flattening dozens of flimsy houses when many residents had gone to bed.
An aerial video on Guatemalan media showed the tree-lined hillside laid bare above earth, foliage and debris covering part of the town, which hugs the side of a river in a deep ravine.
Rescue workers removed dead from the tangle of mangled walls, beds and furniture. A Reuters photo showed the face of one person who had apparently been buried alive.
Alejandro Maldonado, head of Guatemalan disaster agency CONRED, told a news conference at least nine people had been killed and as many as 600 could still be missing after the disaster, which he said hit 125 homes.
“I feel like I’ve lost my loved ones because all my neighbors died,” said survivor Melina Hidalgo, 35.
She was washing clothes when there was a loud crash and the lights went out. She found neighboring houses covered in soil and mud. Felled electricity poles were giving off sparks and crying people searched for children, Hidalgo added.
Guatemalan media reported rescuers heard voices under collapsed buildings and soil as they struggled to dig people out.
The landslide was one of the worst in recent memory in the impoverished Central American country, which was rocked last month by the arrest of its president on corruption charges.
Marta Guitz, 37, returned from work to find her house buried and was unable to reach Dany, her 17-year-old son, who she believed was inside.
“My husband is there now shoveling through soil to find our son,” the domestic worker said as tears welled.
Oscar Raul de Leon and his family abandoned their home and he looked for his cousin but all he found were the remains of the relative’s home.
“I’d prefer to lose my things than any of my children,” he said.
Earlier, authorities said at least 25 people were injured.
The government said 600 people were helping sift the rubble to pull out survivors while authorities set up a shelter to help people made homeless.
Additional reporting by Enrique Pretel and Alexandra Alper; Writing by Dave Graham; Editing by James Dalgleish