In the shadow of Fuego

Close to 200 people are thought buried under the rubble in the town on the fertile lower slopes of the volcano. Fuego - Spanish for "fire" - rises between the regions of Sacatepequez, Escuintla and Chimaltenango about 30 mile from Guatemala City

Damaris Toma, who is looking for her daughter Emily, reacts at the site where her house is buried after the eruption of the Fuego volcano at San Miguel Los Lotes in Escuintla, Guatemala June 9, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Jasso

NSJ’s Shawn Krest had months-long plans to travel to Guatemala to help his daughter settle in for a summer of teaching English through a service project organized by Raleigh’s Temple Beth Or. Little did they know that less a week before they were set to depart for Central America, Guatemala’s Fuego volcano would erupt, killing more than 110 people. 

SAN ANTONIO AGUASCALIENTES, GUATEMALA — The village is alive with weekend activity. Small children play in the tile road, sharing the narrow street with chickens, stray dogs sleeping in doorways and the occasional goat. The bread man and milk man make their morning deliveries, the latter calling out “leche” as he passes each house. The thundering rumble off in the distance is largely ignored.

“Siempre,” says one woman when asked about the sound.

Always. It always does that.

It’s the rainy season in Guatemala, but the slow, low growl doesn’t portent approaching rain. The sound comes from deep within the earth, not above it. A mere 15 miles to the west, Fuego Volcan towers over the mountain village.

Three of Guatemala’s 38 known volcanos are currently active, none moreso than Fuego. On June 3, it exploded with its biggest eruption in four decades, killing more than 100 and leaving far more still missing in the rubble.

The pyroclastic flow — a toxic mix of mud and lava — can travel more than 400 mph, meaning that it would reach San Antionio Aguascalientes in about two minutes. Another dormant (so far) volcano — Acatenango — and a smaller, nonvolcanic ridge should block the village from a direct hit, but there are other ways for Fuego’s fire to reach them.

“Sobre,” says another longtime resident.

Over top.

That’s what happened to Aguascalientes on Sunday. After a night of rumbling, the volcano erupted in early afternoon.

“When I came out of church at like 1 p.m.,” says Soraya Hernandez, “it was the middle of the day, but it got as dark as early evening. Ash and rocks were raining down.”

“It was hot,” says Mrs. Perez Zamora, a mother in the village. “The ash would burn when it landed on you.”

“Have you seen the movie ‘The Day After Tomorrow?’” asks Mrs. Hernandez, Soraya’s mom. “It was just like that.”

The rain of fire lasted about an hour and a half, sending the villagers inside to shield themselves. A week later, despite several rains, ash is still piled up on the shoulder of roads and in grooves of metal roofs, more than a half an inch deep.

The rains didn’t offer much relief from the ash, just spread it around. “Thursday, we had black rain,” says the elder Hernandez. So loaded with ash from above, it stained whomever or whatever it touched.

The villagers call the ash “harina.”

Flour.

“The flour is bad,” one warns. “It turns your eyes red and makes you sick.”

“I don’t know why Fuego sent us the flour,” says Mrs. Hernandez.

With everyone huddled indoors, the only casualties in Aguascalientes were vegetation. Several trees are already dead. The rest are wilted, choking, their leaves still coated with ash.

“The ash burned their leaves,” says Mrs. Perez Zamora, who worked quickly to save her backyard corn crop. “As soon as it stopped falling, we went outside and washed it off of our plants. We think it’ll be OK.”

Meanwhile, Fuego continues to rumble and send up plumes, but the town continues on, cleaning up and putting the blast behind them. They have dying crops and trees to tend with. Even among older villagers that should remember the previous eruption, nearly half a century ago, there is no comparing that one to this, no attempting to top one tragic memory with another. Life goes on.

The wind worked in Aguascalientes’ favor over the following weekend, pushing the ash in the opposite direction. Of course, that just means that someone else is getting the flour this weekend. The villagers are well aware that other towns are much worse off.

“You’re a reporter,” says a group of villagers. “Be sure to tell them that towns near here need supplies, but the mayors are not letting anyone in. We have supplies for them but can’t enter the town. Maybe they’ll let in an American reporter. And you can tell them we’re your helpers.”

Another group of villagers load a truck with a delivery that’s likely bound for one of the areas hit hard by last Sunday’s blast. One at a time, they carry brand new wood coffins out of the shop and secure them to the back of the truck.

“What do you think of our village?” asks one woman. “It used to be so beautiful. Pero entonces? Triste.”

But now? Sad.

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