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Residents Salvage Belongings; Rescuers Search Mud for Bodies

September 11, 1996

GUAYAMA, Puerto Rico (AP) _ For 10 twisting miles, residents slogged through muck to salvage belongings Wednesday while rescuers searched the river bank for people swept away by Hurricane Hortense.

Along the bank were ugly reminders of the hurricane’s destruction: Overturned cars. A half-buried bicycle. A child’s blue sandal. A baby doll stuffed with mud.

Puerto Ricans began Wednesday to tally the toll from Tuesday storm, some of it in damage, some of it in lives.

Overhead, Coast Guard and police helicopters buzzed as ground crews recovered the bodies of Esteban Gomez, 52, and Luz Miriam Cruz, 25, from the receding Guanami River in southeast Puerto Rico.

These members of the Gomez family were swept away Tuesday after a rain-swollen torrent surged through their canyon-bottom home, several miles upstream from where their bodies were found.

Richard Gomez said his wife and his father were lost in the waters as volunteers staged a daring _ but futile _ river crossing to try to save them. His mother, Ini, was swept away, too, but she was still missing. Also missing was 18-year-old Miguel Gomez Rodriquez, the son of another family living in the house.

Gomez, 35, and his four children, ages 1 through 7, survived the deluge by hiding on top of a closet for nine hours until rescuers could reach them.

``We tried to leave one side of the house and the water was too high,″ Gomez said, slumped, red-eyed, on the garage floor of an uncle’s home. ``The other side, as well. Then we opened a window and the water poured in.″

Gomez said he had called for help at Civil Defense headquarters but no one answered the telephone.

A search crew helicopter flew overhead as he spoke Wednesday, while his four children played around him. ``Why are they here today?″ he said of the crew, frustrated that rescuers hadn’t arrived earlier.

Downstream, in the hard-hit barrio of Borinquen, residents picked belongings from the muck that coated their homes, cars, streets and places where shacks used to be. Dozens of tiny wooden and tin shacks were severely damaged or destroyed by the raging river.

Leonardo Melendez, 26, slopped through the mud in his tiny house. A corner of his house sat on top of his station wagon, and a washing machine was half-buried nearby. The whole neighborhood had a musty, fetid smell.

Melendez plucked out a photograph of his daughter, Leonayri, 3, and a mud-filled doll. His daughter survived the disaster, though half of the 12 deaths in Puerto Rico were children _ including two boys, 2 and 3, who suffocated in mudslides.

Nearby, a man carried a maroon purse, asking around if anyone knew its owner. Other people passed out cigarettes and surveyed the damage. By early afternoon, no relief agency officials had been to the area, residents said.

All through the river valley, people shoveled mud and cleared debris. Pavement was torn up, and streets were choked with heavy equipment for repairs to downed power lines and for clearing rows of trees and cars.

Many families cruised the congested streets to gaze at the destruction, ignoring authorities’ pleas for them to stay off the street. Others lined up at bakeries or searched for water, an essential in the tropical heat.

``The world just came to an end,″ said a Borinquen resident, Willie Ruiz, as he gazed around him from the height of a 100-foot concrete bridge washed out by the fury of the hurricane-fed river.

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