Disasters & Accidents

Grim memories still fresh a year after deadly Ecuador capital mudflow

By Fernando Gimeno

Quito, Jan 26 (EFE).- A rain-triggered avalanche of mud, rocks, trees, garbage and debris killed 29 people nearly one year ago in the Ecuadorian capital’s La Gasca neighborhood, a devastating landslide that remains freshly etched in the memories of its inhabitants.

Just days away from the first anniversary of that Jan. 31, 2022, tragedy, Steven Pazmiño looks silently at the spot where he was playing volleyball when a raging mudflow that began on the slopes of the Pichincha Volcano, which overlooks Quito, engulfed everything in its path.

He still wonders how he survived to tell the story when many of his friends did not.

“The current swept me away, and I thought ‘my time’s up.’ I thought how awful it was to die like that, and suddenly I felt a blow and I saw that I was out of the current. I got up frightened and battered … and I couldn’t believe it. I was all in one piece. Not a single broken bone. Just bumps and bruises,” he told Efe.

“They tell me it was a miracle of nature,” the 27-year-old said, adding that he feels as if he had been born again that day and that next Tuesday he will be marking the end of the first year of his second life.

When the mudflow struck, many of the victims were playing volleyball alongside Pazmiño on the same covered court.

More than 50 people had gathered in that space to take shelter from a torrential downpour, never imagining that on this occasion part of the rain-weakened hillside above them would collapse.

On Saturday, a religious ceremony will be held there in tribute to the victims.

“They were like a second family,” he recalled while looking at a banner on a fence with the photos of all who perished in the tragedy. The sign is all that’s left of the recreational area, with no trace of the volleyball court remaining.

“I’ve tried to forget every day, but the memory doesn’t fade, especially now that it’s rainy season and there’s thunder and the sound of (rainfall hitting) the roof,” Pazmiño said. “And you can’t rule out the possibility of another (mudflow).”

Juan Ignacio Tacuri, brother-in-law of one of the victims of the landslide, told Efe he has witnessed first-hand the “torment and suffering” that the death of Wilmer Moreira has caused in his sister and their children and that he has spent the past year trying to encourage and provide emotional support to those surviving family members.

“With a natural death, the suffering is more bearable … but with a sudden accident, it’s not,” he said, adding that the capital’s former mayors neglected to take sufficient disaster prevention and mitigation measures and thus bear the blame for the tragedy.

Tacuri, who lamented what he said was people’s lack of empathy with his sister, said he was inspired to write a poem that he attached to a post at the site of the former volleyball court.

“You left an indelible mark, honorable and loving father. You always showed you were an excellent husband. Impeccable, exemplary and simple. Your friends bid you farewell. See you soon, great ‘Casquillo.’ I’m left to lament that I’ll never see you again, but the solace for all of us is that you’ll rest in peace with God,” he read tearfully.

A few meters uphill from where the volleyball court once stood lies the home of Patricio Sanguña, who did not lose any loved ones but suffered heavy financial losses when the mudflow wiped out his telecommunications business and swept away his vehicle. He devoted his savings to rebuilding his home.

“The house began to shake and from the window we saw how (the mudflow) was carrying away my truck,” Sanguña told Efe while showing photos of the vehicle’s irrecoverable state.

“We went up to the third floor to try to save ourselves (from the avalanche) … a monstrosity with trees and with rocks (that) even went to the back of my house, to a height of 1.5 meters (4.9 feet). Pure mud, garbage, tires and debris,” he said of material that took two weeks to remove.

A year later, Sanguña said neither the national nor city governments kept their word to provide aid in the form of loans and disaster mitigation infrastructure. If something similar happens again, a fence with metal meshing is the only barrier that has been erected thus far in the neighborhood.

“There’s no great retaining wall that could … allow us to go to sleep comfortably at night,” he said. “It’s going to be one year and we’re still waiting here to see what can happen.” EFE

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