Lone woman digs for family lost under Guatemalan volcanic rubble

By Carlos Jasso and Sofia Menchu
Lone woman digs for family lost under Guatemalan volcanic rubble

By Carlos Jasso and Sofia Menchu

SAN MIGUEL LOS LOTES, Guatemala (Reuters) - Eleven days after the Fuego volcano rained down on the Guatemalan village of San Miguel Los Lotes, a backhoe ripped the roof off one of the homes buried by ash, revealing a corpse in the still-hot dust.

"It's my sister Lola," said Eufemia Garcia Ixpata, a 48-year-old fruit vendor who lost dozens of family members in the eruption.

Mexican volunteer rescue workers grabbed their shovels and rushed in to recover the body from the rubble and dust.

Garcia ran to find a sheet of paper and a marker to prepare a name tag before the body was taken to a grade school that was being used as a makeshift morgue.

She had lost her family and her home, and had been sleeping in a school room with other survivors. Reuters photographer Carlos Jasso accompanied her for seven days.

Getting up at 5 a.m., she jumped out of a narrow blue folding bed, and washed one of only two changes of clothing that she had left before bathing.

She gathered her hair into a ponytail and set out to look for her lost and buried family. Fito, her boyfriend of eight years, was her only companion.

"You see, last Sunday, we found remains of my mom. We found one of the children yesterday. So, we are getting results," she said.

At her mother's house, she had found only a tooth and a pair of bones.

Every day, she made her way up the mountain slope to where Los Lotes used to be, waiting for one of the bulldozers tasked with clearing the area to arrive.

She pointed down at the strange, new ground where half of a tree peeked out.

"This was my house," Garcia said as she walked across the gray desert, pointing out where her mother used to live, and where the homes of her sisters and in-laws had stood. Everything was buried.

And still, the volcano smoldered. An alarm sounded, warning of another potential wave of hot ash, lava fragments, and gases exploding from the volcano and rolling down the mountain, swallowing everything in its path.

Whenever those alarms suspend the search for more bodies, Garcia returns to the morgue or checks the hospitals. The same routine, every day. She eats as an afterthought, or when an aid worker shoves a bowl of food in front of her.

Guatemalan rescue workers had only searched during the first three days after the tragedy, calling off efforts as the volcano continued to rumble and hot vapors melted the soles of their shoes.

That was when Garcia decided to search on her own. She had no goggles to protect her eyes, rarely wore a mask on her face, and walked impatiently in the rubble, in sandals.

"The volcano has calmed down. It is nothing to worry about, because everything that it had to blow has already been blown out. So now, with the permission of our Lord and the volcano, we are working," she said.

Fuego had slept for 40 years, but on Sunday, June 3, it ejected tons of earth, ash and colossal stones that buried hundreds of homes and left at least 112 people dead.

In the early days after the eruption, Garcia thought she had lost all her children.

However, as the days passed, three of her six children, 31, 22 and 19 years old, plus a granddaughter, appeared at different shelters.

Four of her nine brothers that she feared were dead also turned up alive. Some called her on the phone when they found out that she was looking for them, while she found others in hospitals.

But the bodies of three of her children remained missing.

"I will finish my search when I find them," she said, drying her tears.

During the seven days that Reuters accompanied Garcia, she had found one body in the house of her former father-in-law, two at her sister's house, and the partial remains at her mother’s home.

(For the related photo essay, click on https://reut.rs/2th4Put)

(Editing by Bernadette Baum)