SAN CRISTOBAL CUCHO, Guatemala – The 10 members of the Vasquez family were found together under the rubble of the rock quarry that had been their livelihood, some in a desperate final embrace, others clinging to the faintest of dying pulses.
As Guatemala tried to recover Thursday from a 7.4-magnitude quake, the country mourned a disaster that killed at least 52 people; left thousands of others without homes, electricity or water; and emotionally devastated one small town by wiping out almost an entire family seeing the first signs of success in a tireless effort to claw itself out of poverty.
Neighbors filed past 10 wooden caskets lined up in two rows in the Vasquez living room, remembering a family reduced to a single survivor, the eldest son about to graduate with an accounting degree.
Justo Vasquez, a man known for his ferocious work ethic and dedication to his seven children, was with nearly all his closest relations Wednesday at a local quarry hacking out a white rock that is pulverized to make cinder blocks for construction.
When the quake struck, thousands of pounds of earth calved off from the wall above the pit, burying the 44-year-old and almost everyone he loved: his wife, Ofelia Gomez, 43; their daughters Daisy, 14, Gisely, 8, and Merly, 6; and their sons Aldiner, 12, Delbis, 5, and Dibel, 3. Their nephews Ulises and Aldo Vasquez, both 12, also died.
Only the oldest son, Ivan, 19, survived. He had stayed in the house when the rest of his family went to the quarry, taking care of some last-minute details to receive his accounting degree — the first in his family to have a professional career. His father had been saving for a party to celebrate his Nov. 23 graduation.
"He died working," said Antonia Lopez, a sister-in-law of the father, Justo Vasquez. "He was fighting for his kids."
Dozens of villagers in the humble town of San Cristobal Cucho ran to dig the family after Guatemala's biggest quake in 36 years. When they uncovered some of the children, one body still warm, two with pulses, they were in the arms of their father, who had tried to shield them.
"We have never seen a tragedy like this. The whole town is sad," said brother Romulo Vasquez, whose 12-year old son, Ulises, also died at the quarry.
The death toll was expected to rise as 22 people remained missing, President Otto Perez Molina said at a news conference. Forty people were killed in San Marcos state, where San Cristobal Cucho is, 11 died in the neighboring state of Quetzaltenango and one was killed in Solola state, also in the western part of the country.
Perez said powerful 7.4-magnitude quake, felt as far as Mexico City 600 miles away, affected as many as 1.2 million Guatemalans. A little more than 700 people were in shelters, with most opting to stay with family or friends, he added.
There were 70 aftershocks in the first 24 hours after the quake, some as strong as magnitude 5.1, Perez said. Damaged homes are among the biggest problems the country will face in the coming days.
Life was returning to normal in the quake-stricken area Thursday afternoon — electricity and mobile phone service had returned to many neighborhoods, cafes and banks reopened and several main thoroughfares filled with their weekly street markets.
But life remained stopped in the Vasquezes' home in San Cristobal Cucho, a town of some 15,000 people so high in the mountains that clouds swirl through the streets.
The streets were packed around the Vasquezes' small yellow-and-red, cinderblock-and-adobe house. Inside, neighbors gathered around the 10 wooden caskets with open lids, pressing against each other to see the faces of the dead and pay their last respects. Wood smoke bathed the memorial as more than a dozen women in the back of the house cooked rice, beans, corn and eggs to feed the crowd.
The Vasquezes were the only ones to die in San Cristobal Cucho. Like the rest of several thousand people in town, the Vasquez family was humble, the parents without much education. Most of the people in the town are subsistence farmers or sell things on the streets and in the markets.
The oldest son, Ivan, was too distraught to speak or even stay at the house among the mourners.
"He was a very good father, he was a very good neighbor," said Antonia Lopez, who was among the many paying respects.
Guatemalans fearing aftershocks huddled in the streets of the nearby city San Marcos, the most affected area. Others crowded inside its hospital, the only building in town left with electricity.
More than 90 rescue workers continued to dig with backhoes at a half-ton mound of sand at a second quarry that buried seven people.
"We started rescue work very early," said Julio Cesar Fuentes of the municipal fire department. "The objective is our hope to find people who were buried."
But they uncovered only more dead. One man was called to the quarry to identify his dead father. When he climbed into the sand pit and recognized the clothing, the son collapsed onto the shoulders of firefighters, crying: "Papa, Papa, Papa."
He and his father were not identified to the news media because other relatives had not been notified of the death.
Volunteers carrying boxes of medical supplies began arriving in the area in western Guatemala late Wednesday.
The quake, which was 20 miles deep, was centered 15 miles off the coastal town of Champerico and 100 miles southwest of Guatemala City. It was the strongest earthquake to hit Guatemala since a 1976 temblor that killed 23,000.
Perez said more than 2,000 soldiers were deployed to help with the disaster. A plane had made at least two trips to carry relief teams to the area. The U.S. State Department said it was sending some $50,000 in immediate disaster relief, including clean water, fuel and blankets. It also said it had offered U.S. helicopters if needed.
Associated Press writer Ruiz-Goiriena in Guatemala City contributed to this report.
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