The Heat Is Online

Ecuadoran Mudslides Claim 48 Lives

Many yet buried in Ecuador landslide

The Boston Globe, June 14, 2001

QUITO, Ecuador - Pushing their way through waist-deep mud, rescue workers struggled yesterday to recover the bodies of some 36 people buried by a landslide that roared down on them while they were stranded in the Andes during torrential rains.

Three bodies have been recovered so far, and more were thought to be trapped under a large boulder, said Red Cross spokesman Cristian Rivera.

''The zone is very difficult to get to. We have terrain saturated with water,'' Rivera told The Associated Press. ''In many cases, the mud is waist-deep, and for that reason the recovery efforts are so difficult.''

He said rescuers could see bodies buried under the boulder but would not be able to dig them out by the end of the day yesterday.

''The mud and the boulder are visible below from the edge of the road,'' Rivera said. ''They can see the bodies of six people buried. That's what is visible. They also see hands and legs.''

The tragedy occurred around dawn Tuesday when the avalanche swept over an abandoned shack where the motorists had set up a campsite after being stranded by smaller landslides about 30 miles east of the capital, Quito.

''One survivor, Mr. Kleber Atam, says that more than 30 people decided to walk and spend the night in this shack,'' Rivera said.

Atam, who suffered a fractured right leg, was taken along with two other survivors - another man and a woman - to an emergency Red Cross treatment center about a mile from the accident site, near the town of Papallacta.

Efforts to reach the bodies were suspended Tuesday night because of fears of another mudslide.

There was a break in four days of torrential downpours yesterday, but the terrain was still saturated and rescue workers were under instructions not to do anything risky.

Papallacta, located midway between the Andes and the Amazon jungle, has been one of the areas hardest hit by the torrential downpours. The main road through the area remained blocked in at least 17 spots by smaller landslides, stalling the arrival of bulldozers and other heavy machinery.

All told, at least 48 people have been killed by landslides or drowned in floods in Ecuador's Andes and Amazon regions, said Ricardo Avendano, director of Ecuador's Civil Defense office.

Nearly 2,500 other people, mostly in Ecuador's eastern and southern Amazon region, were forced to evacuate their homes because of rivers overflowing their banks, officials said. Twenty people were listed as missing.

Landslides near Papallacta also damaged a 200-foot section of Ecuador's main oil pipeline. Another pipeline carrying cooking gas was also disrupted, sending flames shooting into the air.

Rodolfo Barniol, president of Petroecuador, said yesterday that crude-oil exports would be suspended for at least 10 days because of the damaged pipeline - a major blow to a country trying to dig out of one its worst economic crises in decades. Oil is Ecuador's primary export, accounting for about 43 percent of the cash-strapped nation's annual budget.

Barniol said lost revenue could total $24 million.

This story ran on page A9 of the Boston Globe on 6/14/2001.