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Searchers Dig for Landslide Victims

June 14, 2001

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PAPALLACTA, Ecuador (AP) _ Pushing their way through waist-deep mud, rescue workers struggled Wednesday to recover the bodies of at least 31 people buried by a landslide that roared down on them while they were stranded in the Andes.

The tragedy occurred around dawn Tuesday near Papallacta as torrential rains set off an avalanche of mud, rocks and trees that slammed into a small house where the group had taken refuge, officials said.

The victims had been traveling on a bus that became stranded along the road by other landslides. They were invited into the house by owner Jose Manuel Quilumba.

Authorities at the scene said at least 31 people _ the bus passengers and Quilumba _ were killed in the house. Officials earlier said 36 were killed there, but then corrected that to say the other five died in a separate landslide, also near Papallacta, 30 miles east of Quito, the capital.

There was no sign of the structure Wednesday as 20 searchers used shovels and picks to uncover the remains of the victims from a sea of deep mud still slowly moving down the mountainside.

All told, at least 48 people have been killed by landslides or drowned in floods in Ecuador’s Andes Mountains and Amazon jungle after four days of heavy rain, said Ricardo Avendano, director of Ecuador’s Civil Defense office.

The searchers included Quilumba’s 15-year-old son, Segundo, and his brother-in-law, Rodolfo Guagrilla.

The teen-ager let out a pained cry when he recognized his father’s lifeless body in the mud by the clothes he wore. By evening, searchers had recovered 10 bodies.

``We have no hope of finding anyone alive,″ Guagrilla told an Associated Press reporter, as he helped remove his brother-in-law from the mud.

Red Cross spokesman Cristian Rivera told The Associated Press that three people _ two men and a woman _ had survived the landslide.

``It’s a difficult, complicated task. We have been working for more than 12 hours in the recovery. We have orders to stay as long as possible,″ said Police Second Lt. Patricio Galeano, who led the search. ``Many are unrecognizable. It’s a sad job.″

Efforts to reach the bodies were suspended Tuesday night due to fears of another mudslide. There was a break in four days of torrential downpours Wednesday, but terrain in the area was still saturated, and rescue workers were under instructions not to do anything risky.

Papallacta is midway between the Andes mountains and the Amazon jungle and has been one of the areas hardest hit by downpours covering much of the country.

The main road through the area remained blocked in at least 17 spots by smaller landslides along 30 miles of highway, stalling the arrival of bulldozers and other heavy machinery.

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. A pipeline carrying cooking gas was also disrupted, sending flames shooting into the air.

Rodolfo Barniol, president of Petroecuador, said Wednesday that crude oil exports would be suspended for at least 10 days because of the damaged pipeline.

The suspension is a major blow to a country trying to dig itself out of one its worst economic crisis in decades. Oil is Ecuador’s primary export, accounting for about 43 percent of the cash-strapped nation’s annual budget.

``We are talking about a major disaster,″ Barniol said, adding that lost revenue was expected to reach $24 million. Last year, oil exports brought Ecuador about $2.1 billion.

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