EL RODEO, Guatemala (Reuters) - Stunned Guatemalans near the Fuego volcano on Friday buried relatives and friends killed in its most violent eruption in four decades, after dangerous flows of ash, rocks and toxic gases in the morning prompted panicked locals to evacuate.
At least 109 people were killed by a massive eruption on Sunday that buried villagers in scalding ash, gas, with some dying later in hospital from their burns.
A series of blasts since have spewed more deadly, fast-moving pyroclastic flows down the slopes, but have not caused more casualties since authorities have evacuated most residents.
Nearly 200 people are still missing after Sunday’s blast and many family members assume they are dead.
On Friday afternoon, the Garcia family buried five relatives who died in the eruption that sunk many homes in brown ash.
“I sometimes think that this is like a dream, but this is the reality,” said Concepcion Garcia, a farm worker, as he helped bury his brother at a cemetery in Escuintla near the volcano’s base.
The family from nearby San Miguel los Lotes was accustomed to hearing the rumbling of the volcano, whose name means “fire”, so initially brushed off the noise of Sunday’s eruption, he said.
Authorities later admitted they were late in warning locals to flee.
In two of the canyons where flows have accumulated, columns of ash rose as high as 19,700 feet (6,000 meters), according to a Friday morning statement from Guatemala’s volcanic institute.
“The (flows) carry hot vapour, including fine particles similar to cement, two- to three-meter (6.5- to 10-foot) diameter rocks and tree trunks dragged out by the current,” the statement added.
The flows sparked panic among rescue workers still in the area, as well as volunteers and police.
Search and rescue efforts were formally suspended on Thursday due to hazardous conditions, though authorities said they could resume if the situation improves.
“If the search is not going to be continued (authorities) should send us help because even if it’s just bones, we want our families back,” said Eufemia Garcia, 47, a housewife.
She estimated 50 members of her extended family are still missing.
Along a closed highway that connects the towns of El Rodeo and San Miguel los Lotes, two of the towns badly affected, around 25 people, many with picks and shovels, waited to resume the search for the missing.
The U.S. government said it was sending emergency aid at Guatemala’s request, while Mexican authorities sent doctors to help survivors with severe burns, at least seven of whom, in critical condition, were transferred across the border into Mexico.
While Hawaii’s Kilauea’s volcano has produced extremely hot and relatively slow moving lava flows, which have engulfed hundreds of structures but allowed people to evacuate, Guatemala’s Fuego ejected much more dangerous pyroclastic flows, which kill everything in their path because they travel so fast and so far.
Additional reporting by Carlos Jasso; Writing by David Alire Garcia and Julia Love, Editing by Rosalba O'Brien and Sandra Maler