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Dams Burst in Mexico, Killing 11

August 16, 2002

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LA VENTILLA, Mexico (AP) _ There was a boom, and suddenly water was rushing through homes and streets, carrying cows, cars, furniture and people trying to pull themselves to safety.

A 16th-century dam struggling under heavy rains had burst, flooding several villages in central Mexico’s San Luis Potosi state Thursday and leaving nine people dead, all members of the same extended family. On Friday, police used wooden poles to gently poke through the piles of debris in search of Maria Guadalupe Orta, 42, and her 9-year-old nephew Juan Eloy.

In all, 11 people were killed in dam collapses Thursday. Just as the dam came down in La Ventilla, another in neighboring Zacatecas state broke as well, killing a 73-year-old woman and a 3-year-old girl. The girl’s mother was still missing Friday and feared dead.

In La Ventilla, accordion music softly played against the hum of bulldozers clearing mud and debris from the streets as members of the Orta family and friends filed past nine coffins draped in flowers.

Inside the smallest box, 9-month-old Ramiro Orta wore a crown of paper flowers and a long embroidered robe. His mother, father and two siblings were being buried alongside him. His oldest brother, Juan Eloy, was missing.

The father, Fabian Orta, arrived two weeks ago from North Carolina and had planned to baptize his baby boy on Sunday.

Also killed was Fabian’s brother, Clemente, and Clemente’s three children. His wife, Maria Guadalupe, was missing, but their two teenage boys managed to pull themselves from the current.

The two families lived next door to each other on a bluff overlooking the river leading from the dam, and Thursday’s wall of water ripped the two adobe homes from their foundations.

Down the river Friday, the family’s pickup truck was buried, and a refrigerator poked from the debris.

``We found these,″ said police officer Alejandro Reyes, showing a stack of muddy photos. In one, a boy wearing a bow tie stood proudly, smiling. Another showed Maria Guadalupe helping her daughter cut a birthday cake.

Tomas Orta, 37, arrived Friday from San Luis Potosi, the state capital, to say a final goodbye to his two brothers and their families.

He was supposed to be Ramiro’s godfather during the Sunday baptism. Instead, he attended a small ceremony in which a priest blessed the baby’s body.

``It hit me hardest when I saw the bodies,″ he said. ``I’m still trying to pull myself together.″

Some residents said they heard the boom of the dam breaking, releasing 1.2 million cubic feet of water.

Corn stalks in nearby fields were flattened by the deluge, and cars and tractors were stuck in deep mud on roads ringing the fields. In nearby villages, the water had filled streets, in some cases reaching rooftops and forcing residents to climb trees.

``I heard a boom, I got up, and the water was already coming in,″ said Tomas Alvarez, 42, who carried his baby grandchildren as he headed for higher ground with his wife. ``We didn’t grab a thing. We just ran to get out of there.″

The area, 220 miles north of Mexico City, had been pounded by heavy rains. Skies were clearing Friday, and residents were drying their clothing and other belongings on prickly pear cactuses.

Both San Luis Potosi and Zacatecas _ where El Capulin dam unleashed a torrent of water on the city of Villa Garcia, destroying 27 homes _ declared states of emergency.

In the tiny village of La Ventilla in San Luis Potosi, grieving family members carried the nine coffins down the mud-caked cobblestone streets before loading them into cars to be driven to a graveyard. Overhead, helicopters carried officials assessing the damage.

``I can’t believe so many were taken at once,″ said Gabina Orta, 43, Fabian and Clemente’s sister, shaking her head in disbelief.

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