For relatives of Guatemala volcano victims, an agonizing wait

by Henry MORALES
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School teacher Milvia Lopez, standing in an improvised morgue in the Guatemalan town of Escuintla, shows pictures of some of her students who died or remain missing after the eruption of the Fuego volcano

At an improvised morgue in the Guatemalan town of Escuintla, dozens of people stand around in an anguished daze, clutching photos of their loved ones, hoping to recover their bodies for burial.

This small town, some 35 kilometers (20 miles) southwest of Guatemala City, was nearly wiped off the map last Sunday by the violent eruption of the Fuego volcano and the crushing avalanches of earth, ash and glowing lava that followed.

The eruption claimed at least 110 lives and left dozens missing, according to an official tally. And some 4,500 people have no homes to return to.

"They are not animals, they are people," said Boris Rodriguez, 24, who managed to recover a dozen corpses shortly after an avalanche devastated the village of San Miguel Los Lotes. Along with many other mourners, he is waiting for the bodies, still in the morgue, to be returned to family members for burial.

But some families are losing patience as authorities conduct the methodical process of identifying bodies in the makeshift morgue set up in a local school. Dozens of the dead are being kept there.

Rodriguez has been biding his time at the morgue since Monday. Almost a week after helping recover the corpses of 10 relatives, they have yet to be formally identified.

"It is simply too painful to pull those bodies out and not be able to keep vigil over them," he said, standing near a stack of coffins provided for families unable to afford one.

The identification process is slow, involving DNA testing and interviews with relatives. So far, only 41 bodies have been formally identified, according to the National Institute of Forensic Sciences.

- Out of patience -

Many residents say the tragedy could have been avoided if civil protection authorities had issued a timely evacuation alert.

So said Enma Pamal, 46, who took the first available flight from the United States -- her home of 26 years -- upon learning of the catastrophe. Back in the now-devastated community where she was born, she discovered she had lost 18 relatives.

Standing with her 27-year-old brother Gerson, a survivor, she said people were beginning to lose "patience, if not hope" as the identification process drags on.

Enma, who has provided medical examiners with DNA samples and details of the victims' moles, scars and other physical characteristics, was visibly annoyed by the delay.

"They should stop telling us to be patient," she said.

Also waiting in the morgue was 50-year-old teacher Milvia Rosales. She carried a poster with photos of students from the San Miguel Los Lotes school.

Nearly 50 of them died or disappeared in the disaster.

"It makes me sad," said Rosales, walking from one end of the building to the other to look for missing students.

"I need my children," she added, choking back a sob.

- 'I cannot hurt any more' -

But some victims have been identified, and one solemn funeral procession Sunday drew some one thousand family members and friends.

Carlos Garcia, 16, walked alongside the coffins carrying the bodies of his sister Griselda Cortina, 27, and his nine-year-old niece, Meylin Johaly Chavez, as it moved toward a cemetery in the town of San Juan Alotenango.

Both died in the torrent of ash, stone and toxic gas spewed by the volcano. Coffins carrying two other women were also in the procession.

Carlos was saved because he lived farther downhill than his relatives, and escaped when he saw neighbors running in terror. "Nobody warned us," he said.

Hundreds of men formed a corridor for the funeral procession, which was led by 11 children carrying bouquets of flowers.

Jaime Barillas was there to bury his 28-year-old wife, Maria Etelvina Charaldo. Their daughters, aged six and two, are still missing.

He does not know whether their bodies are in the morgue or still lie buried under the mounds of mud and ashes.

"I cannot hurt any more than I do," he said. "I'll never see them again."

School teacher Milvia Lopez, standing in an improvised morgue in the Guatemalan town of Escuintla, shows pictures of some of her students who died or remain missing after the eruption of the Fuego volcano

A forensic scientist works in the Guatemalan town of Escuintla to identify victims of the recent eruption of volcano Fuego