Published September 20, 2013
ACAPULCO, Mexico – Days usually start long before sunrise in La Pintada, where able-bodied men and the women without young children leave home before 6 a.m. to work the coffee fields around the tiny village deep in the rugged green mountains of southern Mexico.
But Monday was a holiday, and rain fell all day because of the tropical storm off the coast, so far more people than usual stayed home, napping under warm blankets or cooking for the Independence Day celebration in La Pintada's little cobblestone square.
Families gossiped. Children played at their parents' feet. Then, suddenly, the earth trembled.
For a split second everyone thought it was one of the region's regular earthquakes. But then a tidal wave of dirt, rocks and trees exploded off the hill above the village, sweeping through the center of town, burying families in their homes and sweeping wooden houses into the bed of the swollen river that winds past La Pintada on its way to the Pacific.
"Everyone who could ran into the coffee fields. It smothered the homes and sent them into the river. Half the homes in town were smothered and buried," said Marta Alvarez, a 22-year-old homemaker who was cooking with her 2-year-old son, two brothers and her parents when the landslide erupted.
Sixty-eight people in the village of about 800 remained missing early Friday, with most presumed dead, making La Pintada the scene of the single greatest tragedy in the twin paths of destruction wreaked by Tropical Storm Manuel and Hurricane Ingrid, which simultaneously pounded both of Mexico's coasts over the weekend, spawning huge floods and landslides across hundreds of miles of coastal and inland areas.
Manuel later gained hurricane force and rolled into the northern state of Sinaloa on Thursday morning before weakening over land. By Thursday night it had degenerated into an area of low pressure over the western Sierra Madre mountains, the U.S. National Hurricane Center said.
The death toll from the weekend storms stood at 97 but was certain to rise since the figure doesn't include the missing in La Pintada. Sinaloa authorities said a fisherman had drowned in choppy waters and a young man and a 5-year-old boy had disappeared in flooded canyons.
In La Pintada, emergency worker evacuated the last survivors and dug through the rubble for bodies. Many of the roughly 400 surviving residents of the village several hours drive northwest of Acapulco were resting Thursday on foam mats on the floor of Acapulco's convention center. Children napped and played as their parents tried to understand how dozens of the people they saw every day for years were suddenly gone from their lives.
Several entire families were wiped out by the landslide, which plowed almost directly through the center of La Pintada.
A handful people lost everyone they loved, suddenly finding themselves the only living members of their families. As neighbors began the process of recovery Thursday, the sole survivors stared blankly into space, virtually unable to move, as if pinned in place by crushing grief.
Amelia Saldana, a 43-year-old single mother, wept furiously as she shared the names of those she lost: her twin boys, Yael and Osiel, age 5; her son Miguel Angel, 7, in his second year of primary school; her "muchacho," Jorge Anivan, 17, and her elderly mother.
Saldana had gone down to the town's main square for an Independence Day celebration, a rare break for the villagers who work until late afternoon in the coffee fields, returning home only to eat and sleep. Because it was raining, Saldana told her sons to stay home while she went down to the square to get some of the free hominy stew being given away.
She heard the landslide and saw it plow into her home. When she ran back to where her house once stood, it no longer existed.
"I tried to get back to my kids, but I couldn't" Saldana said. "I feel so awful. I lost everything."
Interior Secretary Miguel Angel Osorio Chong said Thursday that soldiers had recovered two bodies in La Pintada and continued to dig through the mud. He said that the work was difficult because water is still running down hills in the area and there is risk of more landslides.
Chong said he had a list of names of 68 missing La Pintada residents, but suggested that some may be alive and may have taken refuge in neighboring ranches or hamlets.
All the main arteries to Acapulco remained closed Thursday, including the Highway of the Sun, a major four-lane expressway that links Acapulco to Mexico City. President Enrique Pena Nieto said he was cancelling a trip to New York for the annual U.N. General Assembly because of the emergency.
Federal officials set up donation centers for storm aid Thursday, but they faced stiff questioning about why, instead of warning people more energetically about the oncoming storms, they focused on Independence celebrations and a military parade that kept dozens of aircraft and emergency vehicles in Mexico City, instead of the states where they were most needed.
Congressman Manuel Huerta of the leftist Labor Party said "the underlying issue is that the federal government bears a large part of the responsibility for this tragedy."
Federal security spokesman Eduardo Sanchez brushed off the criticism, telling reporters that emergency "protocols were strictly followed."
Cargo ships were contracted to supply food to Acapulco by sea but many of the city's main tourist areas were surreally normal, with shortages of lettuce and tomatoes the only evidence of the disaster that struck over the weekend.
The situation was far worse in the city's poorer neighborhoods and an air base on the outskirts of Acapulco, where hundreds of stranded tourists remained lined up for a third day Thursday to get seats on military aircraft were slowly ferrying people out of the resort.
Mexican officials said that more than 15,237 people had been flown out of the city on more than 100 flights by Thursday evening, out of the 40,000 to 60,000 tourists estimated to be stranded in the city.
The federal transport secretary promised in a press conference with Pena Nieto that the highway out of Acapulco would be reopened by noon Friday.
Associated Press writers Martin Duran in Culiacan, E. Eduardo Castillo, Adriana Gomez Licon and Olga R. Rodriguez in Mexico City contributed to this report.
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