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SALGAR, Colombia – Ever since a mudslide ravaged this coffee-growing town nestled deep in the Andes, gravedigger John Edison Londono has been busy around the clock.
The frenzied pace has been an emotional as well as a professional response to tragedy. By stoically losing himself in his work Londono says he's been able to postpone grieving for 15 of his own relatives who are among the at least 84 people killed.
"It's very sad, sad, sad," Londono told The Associated Press on Thursday, hours before a mass burial for the first 33 town residents being laid to rest. "But you need to be on your feet, ready to fight, to help bury all of our compatriots."
Monday's flash flood triggered by heavy rains was Colombia's most deadly natural disaster since 1999. An unknown number of people remain missing, but authorities said the chances of finding anyone alive buried under the mud are nil.
Instead authorities have turned their attention to providing shelter and assistance to the more than 500 people affected by the tragedy. The goal is to rebuild, something that Londono says may prove difficult, with many longtime residents ready to leave out of fear of another disaster.
The scope of the disaster is still hard to comprehend. Coffee plantations that had been standing for a century were wiped out. Entire neighborhoods were converted into grey moonscapes. And the body of at least one victim was carried by the raging current more than (60 miles) 100 kilometers downriver.
Londono says the town cemetery to can't handle the demands. Although there are 101 above-ground concrete vaults available for burials, he says many of them have been overtaken by mold and moisture and need to be cleaned out.
None of those being buried Thursday were among Londono's relatives. Their bodies were still in Medellin, a three-hour drive away, where they were taken with the other dead for identification.
Pope Francis also sent his condolences to the victims by way of a letter signed by Vatican Secretary of State Pietro Parolin.