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Survivors Hold Out Hope Relatives Will Be Pulled Alive From The Mud

October 11, 1985

PONCE, Puerto Rico (AP) _ Although four days of searching produced no survivors, relatives continued to hope that loved ones would be pulled alive from the muck that covered Mameyes when a tropical deluge triggered a massive mudslide and destroyed the shantytown.

″It may not make sense, but I still have hope there might be one survivor in my family,″ said Celso Mendez, a 42-year-old, unemployed manual laborer, whose wife, 15-year-old daughter, three-year-old son and brother-in-law disappeared in the mudslide.

A 30-hour tropical deluge triggered the Mameyes avalanche Monday morning, shattering about 400 shacks and burying hundreds of people.

″It was horrible, a nightmare. I never thought a thing like that could happen,″ said Mendez. ″The ground was shaking, then suddenly the walls of my house opened, the floor fell from beneath our feet and we fell into a void.″

Puerto Rican authorities have recovered 75 bodies from flooded communities, including 35 from Mameyes, where they believe up to 500 people were buried in what has been called the worst disaster in the island’s history.

Dogs trained to sniff out bodies were brought in from France and the United States and paced the landslide zone, their barks echoing off the hillsides and breaking a silence ordered by using sensitive equipment to probe for victims.

President Reagan on Thursday designated four of Puerto Rico’s flood- stricken cities as major disaster areas making them eligible for federal funds in relief and recovery efforts.

Mameyes was a working-class community of wood and tin shacks perched on a hillside outside Ponce, a city of 200,000 people on the south side of the island.

On Thursday, Gov. Rafael Hernandez Colon said he considered making the community a mass grave to avoid the threat of disease, but changed his mind after a storm of protest from survivors and officials.

″My God, man, we are human beings, not beasts. We are Christians and we want to bury our dead,″ said 74-year-old Victorio Reyes Quiles, who lost his wife and daughter in the avalanche. ″I won’t rest until my wife is found.″

However, Col. Luis Manuel Carrillo, who is in charge of the search, said an effort was under way to prepare survivors and relatives for such action.

He said the government had sent 35 psychologists and 60 other ″crisis specialists″ from the department of social services to talk with the people.

Reyes Quiles and other relatives of people lost in the disaster learned of the governor’s announcement while waiting anxiously at the Ponce District Hospital for bodies of their loved ones to be brought to the morgue.

Among them was Carmen Reyes, who lost a brother and six other relatives in Mameyes.

″Even if they are in pieces, we want to rescue the bodies of our loved ones because we want to give them a Christian burial,″ she said.

Some 150 National Guardsmen and another 100 civilian volunteers were working at the site.