Disasters & Accidents

Weeks of anguish, grief, fear while recovering bodies from Ecuador landslide

Alausi, Ecuador, Apr 12 (EFE).- More than two weeks after the huge landslide that buried part of Alausi, the anxiety and the grief are increasing among the residents of this town in the Ecuadorian Andes, where 34 bodies have been recovered but 52 people are still missing and presumed buried under the rubble, all the while amid the fear that more of the mountainside will collapse.

Since the landslide erased at least 57 homes on the night of March 26, the titanic rescue work has not halted for a single day, but progress is slow given the tremendous scope of the tragedy, with more than 24 hectares (60 acres) affected and the local soccer stadium covered with debris.

Under the earth that sloughed of the hillside, in some cases several meters (yards) deep, workers are finding whole families who were suddenly crushed and buried by the massive cascade of rocks and soil.

One of those still-missing families includes the husband and four children of Maria Juana Mishqui, an Andean woman who was left alone overnight and now begs for help to find the bodies of her loved ones.

“I lived in our little house with my husband and my four little children. On Saturdays, we went out into the country and now I’ve been left all alone,” Mishqui told EFE amid tears and sobs.

“I’ve been looking for them since the day they disappeared, but we haven’t been able to use picks because the ground is very deep,” she said, watching the digging machinery removing the earth as it excavates down to the area where her home was, but “it’s been more than two weeks and they’re still far away” from that level.

Finding herself in a similar situation is Narcisa Quiroz, who every day wakes up with the hope that she will find her nieces and nephews, their mother and their grandparents, along with the son of one of them.

“That’s what we’ve been hoping for since the first day this happened. Up to now, we haven’t settled down. We want to recover the bodies and give them Christian burials. We won’t relax until they’re recovered,” said Quiroz, who complained about the contradictory information that percolated through the town on the days before the tragedy.

Although the signs of an imminent landslide had been there since late last year, including the appearance of big cracks in the upper part of the hillside that even affected a roadway, not all the families evacuated the area in time.

Meanwhile, Juan Quinche, another Alausi resident who lost 10 relatives, said he’s grateful to the hundreds of police officers, soldiers and firefighters who are performing rescue and recovery work but called for more machinery to accelerate the efforts.

And to that tense and exhausting wait for the relatives of the victims whose bodies still have not been recovered must now be added the fear of a new landslide.

The detection of more cracks and the seeping of rainwater into the mass of cascaded earth, along with the collapse of local health infrastructure are making the area truly unstable.

Therefore, starting earlier this week, Ecuador’s General Risk Secretariat raised the yellow alert to orange due to the possibility of new landslides off the mountain in an area of 214 hectares (535 acres) that has been designated “ground zero” and also for another five nearby neighborhoods.

One of those neighborhoods is Control Norte, from which residents have been evacuated, including Elizabeth Morocho, who every now and then has been returning to check on her home.

“The neighborhood is at risk. I lived in the back part and they made us leave here because there’s no water or electricity. They say that the mountain possibly will come down again, what remains to collapse,” she told EFE, going on to demand help from the authorities so that she can relocate or acquire another home.

The majority of those affected in this neighborhood are being housed in the homes of friends or relatives elsewhere around the country, as in the case of Morocho’s 97-year-old grandmother, who was taken to the town of Duran, in Ecuador’s coastal region.

“You can’t relax or live in peace like this, and many are people who’ve lived for years in this neighborhood. My grandmother wants to return to her home to live,” she said.

In all, more than 1,000 people have been affected by the catastrophe and about 100 remain in two of the four temporary shelters that were established in the town.

So, Alausi is still far from recovering its tranquility and normal rhythms, which the mountain snatched away from this little town called “magical” due to its history and legends and known touristically for the “Devil’s Nose,” one of South America’s most emblematic mountain railway passes.

EFE iz-fgg/sm/bp

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