- Image 1 of 3
- Image 2 of 3
- Image 3 of 3
SANTA CATARINA PINULA, Guatemala – A wall of mud stopped everyday life mid-text, mid-sentence, mid-dream for the family of Manuel Sandoval and Maritza Aquino.
A normal Thursday night, daughter-in-law Tanya Garcia had made her regular evening call to her mother. She worried about her blood pressure. Granddaughter Melany Sandoval was texting a friend in another state in Guatemala, and suddenly the conversation stopped.
In all, seven family members are now dead and four still missing from the canyon home that Sandoval built 16 years ago, and where he, wife Maritza, three sons and their families lived. They are among 69 dead and possibly hundreds more buried late Thursday when a rain-soaked hillside collapsed in the outskirts of Guatemala City.
Pablo Sandoval, the only surviving brother, was at work during the slide and said he heard from a friend that there had been some kind of tragedy in his neighborhood. When he arrived home, he saw "nothing but dirt." It was his job to identify and retrieve the bodies. A large man, he handed out bear hugs and shared tears with scores of people who streamed through a house loaned for the wake with an open-air court on the town square, with rooms enough for seven caskets.
"We were a family of workers, fighters, from my parents down to the youngest," he said. "Very caring. The best."
On Saturday, rescue workers using shovels and pickaxes recovered more bodies from the rubble as an emergency official said another 350 people were believed missing. Municipal authorities said that they thought about 300 were missing because some people were not in the area at the time.
Julio Sanchez, spokesman for Guatemala's volunteer firefighters, said the death toll will likely continue to rise as emergency crews dig through the tons of earth that buried some 125 homes in Cambray, a neighborhood in the suburb of Santa Catarina Pinula.
As time went on, there was less hope of finding survivors.
"Only a miracle can save them," said rescue worker Ines de Leon.
Dozens of families like the Sandovals waited outside a makeshift morgue as more bodies were brought in, hoping to find their loved ones.
Sandra Escobar said her mother was inside viewing bodies in search of family members, including aunts, uncles, cousins and nephews. In all, she said there were 20 family members they hadn't heard from since the mudslide.
Santa Catarina, a municipality in the county of Guatemala and set right next to the city limits, is a middle-class suburb of government workers, salesmen, taxi drivers and cooks.
By Saturday night the residents were out in the town square in front of the looming white church with powder-blue cupulas, where many of the Masses for the dead would be held.
The central kiosk with the red tile roof was piled high with donations, milk, juice boxes, clothing, toilet paper, rice.
People cried in the square and at the Sandoval wake, where volunteers cooked large pots of rice, beans and chicken and homemade tortillas. The Sandoval extended family first learned of the mudslide via a relative's posting on Facebook.
"Tell your relatives, there's been an accident," the posting said, according to Alma Salic, Tanya Garcia's mother.
Many drove all night from around Guatemala, some from San Marcos state and others from Peten.
Eduardo Perez, 17, who came to pay his respects, was uphill from the Sandoval home making dinner when the hillside fell. He and others ran with sticks to try to rescue the trapped, climbing onto to broken roofs to pull people out.
In one house, he pulled out two children, a 16-year-old teen and their mother.
"Another sister, a 15-year-old was buried. You could only see her arm and nothing else," he said.
The photographs on the caskets at the Sandoval wake showed their everyday lives cut short.
Sandoval held government jobs and Aquino worked in a school for the blind. She was getting ready to retire.
Son Jose Sandoval, known as "Johnny," sold cellphone accessories and loved the Zacapa Gallos soccer team.
"My son-in-law and my grandson loved playing soccer together," Salic said. "He was good son in law he took good care of my daughter, of his family."
Her grandson, Bryan Sandoval, 17, was pictured with a giant trophy from a band competition. He was a drummer. Older sister, Melany, 19, had finished high school and was thinking about work and studying law.
"We were always together. We went on vacation as kids to my grandmother's hours in Zacapa," said cousin Karla Pirir Sandoval, 27. She broke tears thinking of all the holidays past. "Every Christmas they came for dinner with us.