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Hope dwindles for finding survivors of mudslide in Peru

February 21, 1997

CUZCO, Peru (AP) _ Rains slowed the grisly task of pulling cadavers from mud and rocks Thursday amid dwindling hopes of finding more survivors of an Andean mudslide that killed as many as 300 villagers.

Rescue workers in rubber boots braved downpours to continue the search, and there were fears that large numbers of bodies could provoke epidemics. Government workers vaccinated villagers against tetanus and other diseases.

Victims’ arms and legs could be seen sticking out of the sea of mud that covered entire villages.

On Tuesday, the side of a hill saturated by rain let loose and roared down onto two sleeping mountain villages in the district of Tamburco, southeast of the capital, Lima. People, homes, livestock and crops were swept away.

Miriam Monzon Carrion, a nurse, said many people were crushed beneath the weight of their homes. Only two houses remained standing in the village of Ccocha (pronounced HOH-cha), she said.

Many families, trapped on high ground surrounded by the impassible muck, were forced to spend the night outside, wet and cold.

``The families are desperate to find the bodies,″ Roman Catholic priest Tomas Garcia said in a radio interview from the disaster zone. The chances of finding any more survivors were slim.

Villagers in Tamburco on Thursday prepared a collective funeral Mass for the victims whose bodies have been recovered so far by rescue workers using picks, shovels and crowbars.

In the ancient Incan city of Cuzco, Carlos Valencia, president of the Inca Region that includes the disaster zone, said three more bodies were found Thursday morning, raising the death toll to 43.

``We are going to recover as many bodies as possible, but it will be impossible to recover them all″ from the 45-foot-deep mass of mud, Valencia said. ``The disaster area will become a cemetery.″

Valencia, a government official, said 51 villagers were not at home when the disaster struck. Of those who were at home when the mudslide hit, only five survived, he said.

President Alberto Fujimori, inspecting the disaster site Wednesday, said 250 to 300 people were buried in the mud.

Survivors awaited the arrival of much-needed food and medicine. A Chilean air force plane arrived in Peru on Thursday with a shipment of tents, clothing, cots, bedding, disposable diapers and drinking water.

During the dry season, the region is reachable from Cuzco by a 10-hour drive over dirt roads. But the roads have been washed out.

While visiting the disaster zone, Fujimori placed a boy’s slack body in a coffin. The president, known for his steely demeanor, was clearly moved by the tragedy.

``I have just seen 3-year-old children with their bodies limp,″ he said. ``Two villages have almost completely vanished.″

About 250 people were evacuated because of the threat of more mudslides and up to 600 may be moved to safer areas, Health Minister Marino Costa Bauer said.

A separate mudslide hit Tamburco on Sunday, killing five people and leaving 40 families homeless.

Heavy rainfall in the highlands from December through March frequently causes flooding and landslides.

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