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Desperate quest for survivors as Colombia death toll mounts

  • COLOMBIAN ARMY PHOTO VIA AP

    In this handout photo released by the Colombian National Army, soldiers and residents worked together in rescue efforts in Mocoa, Colombia.

BOGOTA, Colombia >> Rescuers prying through piles of rocks and wooden planks left by floodwaters from three rivers that surged through a Colombian city vowed to resume their search at first light Sunday as the death toll from one of the worst disasters in the country’s recent history neared 200.

With no electricity to light Mocoa, authorities were forced to suspend the search tonight almost a day after heavy rains caused the rivers to overflow and send a wall of water through the city near the Ecuador border around midnight, sweeping away homes, cars and trees while residents slept in their beds.

President Juan Manuel Santos said 193 people had been killed and authorities said as many as 220 were feared missing. The bodies were being placed in a temporary morgue where three teams of medical examiners were working around the clock to swiftly identify the remains.

“They are going to work 24 hours a day,” said Carlos Valdes, director of the National Institute of Legal Medicine and Forensic Science, the agency leading the medical team working to identify the deceased.

Authorities and residents in the city tucked between mountains along Colombia’s southern border spent today tending to victims, trying to find homes on streets reduced to masses of rubble and engaged in a desperate search to locate loved one who disappeared in the dark of night. Authorities expect the death toll to rise.

Eduardo Vargas, 29, was asleep with his wife and 7-month-old baby when he was awoken by the sound of neighbors banging on his door. He quickly grabbed his family and fled up a small mountain amid the cries of people in panic.

“There was no time for anything,” he said.

Vargas and his family huddled with about two dozen other residents as rocks, trees and wooden planks ripped through their neighborhood below. They waited there until daylight, when members of the military helped them down.

When he reached the site of his home today, nothing his family left behind remained.

“Thank God we have our lives,” he said.

Santos traveled to Mocoa and declared the city a disaster zone today. The Air Force transported 19 patients to a city further north and said 20 more would be evacuated soon. Medicine and surgical supplies were being sent to the city as the area’s regional hospital struggled to cope with the magnitude of the crisis.

Herman Granados, an anesthesiologist, said he worked throughout the night on victims and that the hospital doesn’t have a blood bank large enough to deal with the number of patients and was quickly running out of its supply.

Some of the hospital workers came to help even though their own relatives remained missing.

“Under the mud,” Granados said, “I am sure there are many more.”

Santos blamed climate change for triggering the avalanche, saying that the accumulated rainfall in one night was almost half the amount Mocoa normally receives in the entire month of March. With the rainy season in much of Colombia just beginning, he said local and national authorities need to redouble their efforts to prevent a similar tragedy.

The crisis is likely to be remembered as one of the worst natural disasters in recent Colombian history, though the Andean nation has experienced even more destructive environmental catastrophes. Nearly 25,000 people were killed in 1985 after the Nevado del Ruiz volcano erupted and triggered a deluge of mud and debris that buried the town of Armero.

As rescuers shifted through debris, many residents in Mocoa were conducting their own searches for lost loved ones.

Oscar Londono tried in vain throughout the night to reach his wife’s parents, whose home is right along one of the flooded rivers. He decided it was too dangerous to try to reach them in the dark. So he called over and over by phone but got no answer.

Once the sun began to rise he started walking toward their house but found all the streets he usually takes missing. As he tried to orient himself he came across the body of a young woman dressed in a mini-skirt and black blouse.

He checked her pulse but could not find one.

“There were bodies all over,” he said.

When he finally reached the neighborhood where his in-laws live he found “just mud and rocks.” Rescue workers with the military oriented him toward the mountain, where he found his relatives camped with other survivors.

“To know they were alive,” he said, “it was a reunion of tears.”

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