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Awe, horror, and the aftermath… Notes from an “unaffected” resident of Guatemala

Last weekend, my wife and I celebrated our fifth wedding anniversary with a romantic, candle-lit dinner in one of Antigua, Guatemala’s many nice restaurants.

Before we left, we strolled to the roof-top terrace to look out over the city. As usual, I looked for a view of the Fuego Volcano, hoping to see a red glow at the top or maybe even a stream of bright orange lava.

Because that is all Fuego meant to most tourists and locals. It was something beautiful and photo-worthy that occasionally provided an awesome view of God’s power. The thought that it would harm us was far from our minds.

Then, Sunday happened.

Just another day…

Sunday’s eruption was the strongest area residents witnessed in their lifetime. But other than being louder and darker, nothing seemed too terribly out of place as the ash plume rushed toward the stratosphere.

Young men continued playing football. Golfers continued to play through. Merchants and tourists continued to negotiate. Two young girls raced to a bridge to watch the event like they had so many times before.

Another volcano, Agua (water) looms large near my home and blocks my view of Fuego. But this eruption was big enough for us to see the plume rising high and a little off to the right.

Expats near Antigua posted comments on social media as to the magnificence and power of this particular eruption. It certainly was big, but there was little sense of alarm.

When ash started falling over the city streets, it was regarded as an inconvenience. Clean-up advice peppered my news feed. People recalled the 2010 eruption of nearby Pacaya Volcano which dumped several inches of ash over the city.

My sister-in-law’s wedding was interrupted by an ash cloud just a couple of years ago. As recently as February, Fuego shot ash two miles high and spewed lava.

My Facebook page includes a photo of Sunday’s eruption with a note calling it “just another day in Guatemala.”

mission team poses in front of a burping Fuego

Watching… but never seeing it coming

These volcanic plumes happen all the time. Usually, it gets carried away on the winds. I have multiple photos of Fuego burping. If you Google search, you can find thousands of beautiful views of the same volcano erupting. My favorite is a night shot where it appears Fuego’s plume becomes the Milky Way.

This time, It was more than ash and lava. Fuego exploded and sent forth a stream of super-heated gas, mud, pumice, and rocks down the path of least resistance, washing away everything in its path and leaving behind a muddy mess.

Today, the hamlet of San Miguel Los Lotes is gone. The villages of El Rodeo and San Juan also suffered severely.

The pyroclastic flow looked like the clouds of ash and dust that ripped through New York City streets after the Towers collapsed in the 9-11 terror attack.

color photo of flow's aftermath

Maybe those 9-11 images made people think they could survive the cloud. Maybe that is what made them snap one more photo or linger a little longer before it came upon them. As long as they could get in the house, they probably thought they could ride it out.

What is obvious, is that by the time many realized the danger, it was too late.


Guatemala media does not edit or protect the privacy of victims very well. The video and photos of this disaster are harrowing.

Initial reports included cell phone footage of the pyroclastic flow rumbling down the expansive mountainside, rolling over homes and across bridges and hills without slowing down.

Then came the videos of people running and cars racing past them in a frenzied escape attempt. Even emergency officials seemed oblivious to the danger. One video shows officials watching and filming the flow until they realize an arm of it is racing toward the bridge they are on.

When the first post-flow photos emerged, it seemed like just a lot of ash, like the tower collapse. It was bad, but survivable.

San Miguel los Lotes

Then the horror…

Then came more photos from the areas in the path. There were three ash-covered persons, dead in the roadway, while an old man sat burned and stunned on the side looking at them. Today came reports that the old man succumbed to his injuries, too.

There were the six legs sticking out from the top of an overpass, kept from being swept away by a guardrail. More than a meter of ash and dust covered the top halves of their bodies.

Then there was the photo that haunts me most; a father and two children he tried to carry away. The man looks like he fell to his knees before collapsing. A boy of no more than three years clings to his leg in death. His daughter lies face-to-face with her dad, mouth agape.

She was probably straining to get air, but when my own two-year-old was startled and blurted out, “Papa!” last night, I could almost hear that little girl begging for her father to save her.

Behind them is the body of a woman. Is it their mother? Did the man with the children slow down to help her? Did he turn around, sealing his fate? I can not help but wonder how he must have felt in those terrifying moments.

Called to action

The past few days have been a wondrous display of a people coming together. I expect nothing less from Guatemala, whose residents are among the most generous and giving in the world.

There are literally thousands of collection points for the victims across the country. Organizations, churches, and individuals poured into the area. The shelter we visited yesterday had dozens of volunteers on top of the officials in charge.

Mountains of clothing, food, and water are being delivered to shelters and warehouses. Coordinating it all has proven a bit difficult. The spot we visited had tons of diapers, but no diaper cream and precious-few wipes.

The shelter is a tin-roofed gymnasium. During the day, the sun turns it into a sauna despite the open-block construction of the walls. We will deliver cases of deodorant and more soap as soon as we can.

Immediate needs exist. People send their extra clothing, but they don’t generally send socks and underwear. We loaded the car with those things for tomorrow, too.

Officials have done a good job of dispensing resource teams to address social, psychological, medical, and logistics needs. It will take a couple of more days to perfect the basic supply flow for the 3500 or so in the shelters.

Then, we will shift our response to more long-term matters.

As the horror continues

Firefighters, police, army, and a swarm of volunteers comb through the hazardous site looking for bodies. The ground is still hot. Their shoes are falling apart as glue and rubber melt.

They negotiate their way precariously over planks of wood, cinder blocks, crates, and tree branches… anything to keep them off the still-smoldering mud.

Some are searching homes by walking across rooftops and lifting the panels of lamina (tin or aluminum sheets) in a desperate attempt to find life. More often, they find the homes were ovens that baked anything and anyone in them.

Over 75 bodies have been recovered. Officials offer that as the official death toll, but the truth is undoubtedly worse. There was no one we spoke to who reported less than a handful of dead or missing persons in each family.

Survivors are being told some bodies will be left where they are, permanently entombed in volcanic mud that filled their homes. My gut tells me the government won’t count many of those victims in their reports.

Likewise, officials report almost 200 missing. They use the number reported on an electronic reporting system implemented by CONRED, which is like their FEMA. But few of these folks have access to the internet right now and many of them are too busy searching to be on a computer.

Despair, distrust, and fear

Matters are complicated by the locals’ complete distrust of the government. Many snuck back to their homes or never left because they feared looting by troops as much as by anyone else.

When municipal officials showed up at the shelter yesterday and told the managers they wanted to move many of their donated items to the central depot, no one would let them. When one representative identified himself as a federal official but was called out as a local mayor’s aide, they gave up and left.

Everyone knows the stories of how many donated supplies went missing when the government took charge after the 1978 earthquake.

To deliver our baby creams and other supplies, we had to sneak our way past guards posted to assure that all donations were diverted to the main depot. It didn’t matter if the folks in that shelter needed the goods immediately. There are processes to follow.

When the volcano started smoking and rumbling early yesterday, a call went out for four-wheel drive vehicles from ground zero to transport panicked family members to the shelters. These were the folks who stayed behind to guard their belongings or help search.

When a new flow developed, the entire region panicked. Rescuers and residents raced away from the area. Rumors of mass evacuations extended well past the affected locations.

Escuintla’s IGSS hospital had to announce they were not ordered to evacuate as they struggled to calm relatives trying to take their family members away.

And hope…

Ten people were pulled from the ash alive in the first 24 hours. A baby girl was lifted out of a home the next day, apparently unscathed while the rest of her family was suffocated and burned.

By yesterday, we were applauding the discovery of a pet dog.

But still, the workers push on, refusing to stop even in the shadow of another ash plume and the rumbling of more tremors. They are determined to look inside every home and under every pile, in case another miracle is waiting there.

Searchers say they want loved ones to have bodies to bury. I am not sure if they know how much trouble the government is having identifying the victims, who are usually left with no features to work with.

Social media posts every little positive and encourages support for the rescuers and survivors. But even that effort is a little embellished. A popular photo of two children alleges to picture two brothers finding themselves.

Unfortunately, they are from Ecuador. The photo is a popular meme that has been in use for years. My instinct to point out the mistake is muted by the overwhelmingly happy responses to the image.

When I read the comments, I realize I am not the only one who hears the young girl crying “Papa” at her moment of doom.

The government reports 1.7 million people were affected by the eruption. Like every other statistic, they are under-counting.

This is going to leave an entire population affected for quite a while.

We are on the ground in Guatemala with our small, but mighty, charitable organization. We can really use some prayer power. If you would like to provide more concrete help for the survivors of the Fuego Volcano eruption, please… visit our donations page.

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