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Rescuers Hunt for Survivors as Death Toll Climbs to 48 in Massive Guatemala Landslide

Hundreds of people are still missing after tons of earth, rock, and trees cascaded down from a hillside onto homes southeast of Guatemala City.
October 3, 2015, 7:29pm
Photo by Esteban Biba/EPA

Rescue workers scrambled through earth and rubble on Saturday in search of survivors of a massive landslide in Guatemala that killed at least 48 people, even as hopes began to fade for hundreds of others still missing.

Diggers plowed into the mounds of earth that destroyed homes in Santa Catarina Pinula on the southeastern flank of Guatemala City, after authorities said on Friday that as many as 600 people were unaccounted for after Thursday night's disaster.

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Loosened by rain, tons of earth, rock and trees cascaded onto part of the town from the hillside above, flattening houses and trapping residents who had gone home for the night.

The Attorney General's Office said on Twitter the death toll had risen to 48, though fears that hundreds more were trapped threaten to make the landslide one of the worst natural disasters to hit Central America in recent years.

An initial tally showed at least three babies among the dead.

Related: Landslide Buries Town in Guatemala: 600 Feared Missing

Around 1,800 soldiers, firemen, and neighbors helped with the rescue efforts, according to David de Leon, a spokesman for disaster agency Conred, who said some homes had been buried under about 50 feet of earth.

De Leon said the search would continue for at least 72 hours after the disaster, but added that the likelihood of locating survivors after that was slim.

Twenty-six people were reported as injured.

Clutching photos of their loved ones, families of victims waited in line outside a makeshift morgue near the excavation site, some of them crying, to see if they recognized any bodies recovered.

Aerial view of the landslide in the Guatemalan municipality of Santa Catarina Pinula. (Photo via EPA)

Local media showed images of rescue workers yelling down into the rubble to locate victims. "Make noise so we can find you," a rescue worker yells into the earth in one video.

On Friday there were reports of family members receiving text messages of buried survivors asking to be rescued.

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"We've been here since last night hoping they will find the bodies of my niece and her four kids," said Guillermo Perez, 55, a teacher from El Salvador, who said he had remained at the scene even after the search was suspended on Friday night.

The tragedy has hit Guatemala after weeks of political turmoil, just as it prepares to elect a new president. Jimmy Morales, a former comic actor favored to win a second round run-off on October 25, arrived at the scene to survey the damage.

Related: Jailed Former President of Guatemala Wants a TV

Last month, outgoing President Otto Perez Molina was forced to stand down and was arrested on corruption charges.

In October 2005, heavy rainfall triggered a devastating landslide in Panabaj in the southwest of the Central American country, burying the village. Hundreds of people are believed to have died, and many of the bodies were never recovered.

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