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Guatemalans living near cavernous sinkhole anxiously keep watch, worrying it could expand

GUATEMALA CITY (AP) — Maria del Carmen de Ramirez's house is just as she left it when she fled into the evening during a torrential downpour, as a cavernous sinkhole opened up and swallowed the clothing factory next door.

A week later, de Ramirez hasn't dared go back inside to pick up so much as a toothbrush. "All I have is what people have given me," she told The Associated Press on Saturday.

Some 66 feet (20 meters) across, nearly 100 feet (30 meters) deep and almost a perfect circle at its gaping mouth, the sinkhole opened up suddenly May 30 in Ciudad Nueva, a 1930s-era neighborhood full of art deco buildings and broad streets.

Many who lived nearby have abandoned their homes, while those who remain say they are in constant fear of another collapse — one that could be deadly this time.

"I can only sleep for short stretches. You feel powerless," said de Ramirez, a 60-year resident of Ciudad Nueva who is now staying with a sister-in-law — just a few yards (meters) from her own house.

"The doctor told me I have to adapt to this new life, to this life that changed me in seconds," she said. "But it's very hard to adapt to this."

Neighbors said it was a miracle nobody died at the clothing factory, which had closed for the day just an hour beforehand. A weekend watchman also was spared because he had left to tend to his house, which was flooded by the rains.

"That day, hundreds of students came to pick up their uniforms (at the factory). ... If the hole had opened a few hours earlier, it would have been a great tragedy," de Ramirez said.

Some locals say a private security guard making a phone call at the time was swallowed along with the phone booth, and there are also reports a taxicab may have been sucked into the abyss. But authorities have not confirmed any deaths from the sinkhole.

Experts still haven't determined what caused the huge hole to open or whether it could keep growing, said Sergio Cordon, a geologist who investigated the cavity.

Neighbors and local media speculate there is a direct link between the rains last weekend — the heaviest seen here in decades, brought by the first tropical storm of the year in the eastern Pacific.

"There was the sound of water, a lot of water, when the hole opened up," said Andre Anguiano, who described driving to his in-laws' house when the sinkhole suddenly appeared in the car's path.

"It was my wife who alerted me. I was just driving along and had no idea there was a huge hole," Anguiano said, chuckling at the memory. "But at that time I was very scared."

Anguiano and his wife quickly put her parents in the car and they all went to spend the night on the other side of town. Like many other neighbors, they're anxious for information on whether there is still a risk.

For the time being, authorities have merely fenced off the area and put down enormous plastic tarps to try to keep rains from weakening the walls of the sinkhole.

David de Leon, spokesman for Guatemala's disaster agency, said teams are using radar to scan underground and assess the earth's stability, but the results have been muddled by magnetic fields radiating from ash deposited on the streets by a May 27 eruption at the nearby Pacaya volcano.

One idea proposed by a local cement factory is to collect the many tons of black ash spewed by Pacaya, mix it with cement and use it to plug the sinkhole.

"They told us it will take 12 to 18 months to fill the hole, but I don't know what to believe," de Ramirez said. "I won't go back until they assure me that everything is OK."