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

Beat the heat this summer with pop-up spray parks

Starting next week, spray parks will be popping up in neighbourhoods across… Continue reading

Genetic detectives begin work to trace spread of COVID-19 in Canada

The kinds of genetic technology being used for this project did not exist when SARS hit Canada in 2003

Quebec police continue search for father, one day after missing girls found dead

Bodies were found in a wooded area of Quebec City suburb

11 rafters rescued from Red Deer River

Red Deer RCMP rescued a party of 11 river rafters Saturday afternoon… Continue reading

Tuesday marks 20th anniversary of Pine Lake tornado

‘Devastation was apparent’ following F3 tornado killed 12 people on July 14, 2000

QUIZ: Are you ready for a summer road trip?

How much do you really know about roads, motor vehicles and car culture? Take this quiz to find out.

You can’t put a price on memories

Some people would rather buy something than sell something. Some people are… Continue reading

Masks and gloves: Elections Saskatchewan preparing for pandemic election

REGINA — Elections Saskatchewan estimates it will need 400,000 face masks and… Continue reading

Quebec police say they found 2 bodies in St-Apollinaire during search for 2 girls

SAINT-APOLLINAIRE, Que. — Quebec provincial police continue to search for the father… Continue reading

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, NHLPA chief Don Fehr reflect on RTP, CBA deals

Gary Bettman and Don Fehr finally have a chance to catch their… Continue reading

NHL’s road to Edmonton and Toronto featured plenty of obstacles

Since early March, the novel coronavirus has affected almost every decision facing… Continue reading

Florida sets record week for coronavirus deaths

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Florida’s coronavirus death rate rose again Saturday, setting… Continue reading

Trump’s defiant help for Stone adds to tumult in Washington

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump’s intervention into a criminal case connected to… Continue reading

With debt, deficit numbers out, experts say Liberals need plan for growth

Borrowing will push the federal debt past $1 trillion by the end of the fiscal year

Most Read