Villagers mourn family among 52 dead in Guatemalan quake

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.

SAN CRISTOBAL CUCHO, Guatemala (AP) — 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.

Neighbours 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 neighbouring 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 neighbourhoods, 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, neighbours 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 neighbour,” 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 centred 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.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

City council will have to wait longer to hear back from administration on possible alternative sites — if the homeless shelter is moved from Red Deer downtown. (Photo by LANA MICHELIN/Advocate staff).
Alternative sites for homeless shelter will be explored by the City of Red Deer

Council gave administration more time to return with a report

Quentin Lee Strawberry was found not guilty of second-degree murder in connection with stabbing death of Joseph Gallant in March 2019. (Photo from RCMP)
Updated: O’Chiese man found not guilty of 2019 stabbing death of Red Deer man

Quentin Strawberry found guilty of assaulting murdered man’s common-law partner

(Advocate file photo).
City of Red Deer property tax bills are in the mail

Red Deer 2021 tax notices are on their way. Red Deer property… Continue reading

‘Dear Future Children’ takes top audience prize at Hot Docs film festival

‘Dear Future Children’ takes top audience prize at Hot Docs film festival

FILE - Signage promoting the 77th annual Golden Globe Awards and NBC appears in Beverly Hills, Calif. on Jan. 5, 2020. NBC said Monday that will not air the Golden Globes in 2022. (Photo by Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP, File)
Amid outcry, NBC says it will not air Golden Globes in 2022

Amid outcry, NBC says it will not air Golden Globes in 2022

RCMP officers work at the scene after a shooting outside the international departures terminal at Vancouver International Airport, in Richmond, B.C., Sunday, May 9, 2021. Homicide investigators expect to release more information about a deadly shooting in Burnaby on Saturday that police say could be linked to a similar slaying at Vancouver's airport just one day later. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
‘We will do everything we can,’ B.C. police say to reassure public amid gang violence

‘We will do everything we can,’ B.C. police say to reassure public amid gang violence

Pentagon spokesman John Kirby speaks during a briefing at the Pentagon in Washington, Wednesday, May 5, 2021. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)
US ship fires warning shots in encounter with Iranian boats

US ship fires warning shots in encounter with Iranian boats

A Palestinian protester does a handstand next to a fire which was set on a road during clashes with Israeli police near Damascus Gate just outside Jerusalem's Old City, Sunday, May 9, 2021. Israeli police have been clashing with Palestinian protesters almost nightly in the holy city's worst religious unrest in several years. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)
Hamas launches new attack on Israel after Jerusalem clashes

Hamas launches new attack on Israel after Jerusalem clashes

Bloc leader Yves-Francois Blanchet holds a news conference before Question Period, Monday, May 10, 2021 in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
NDP join Liberals to cut short debate, move pandemic election bill forward

NDP join Liberals to cut short debate, move pandemic election bill forward

Specimens to be tested for COVID-19 are seen at LifeLabs after being logged upon receipt at the company's lab, in Surrey, B.C., on Thursday, March 26, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
Iqaluit elders home evacuated after staff member tests positive for COVID-19

Iqaluit elders home evacuated after staff member tests positive for COVID-19

NDP leader Jagmeet Singh listens to a question as he speaks with reporters on Parliament Hill, Wednesday, May 5, 2021 in Ottawa. Singh says he believes there's a connection between anti-mask and anti-lockdown protests and far-right extremism. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
‘Pandemic of hate’: Leaders, experts warn anti-lockdown protests linked to far right

‘Pandemic of hate’: Leaders, experts warn anti-lockdown protests linked to far right

Most Read