Fast-moving lava burned and buried many beyond recognition
The intense heat of the volcanic debris flows left most bodies unrecognizable, AP reported.
“It is very difficult for us to identify them because some of the dead lost their features or their fingerprints” from the red-hot flows, said Fanuel Garcia, director of the National Institute of Forensic Sciences. “We are going to have to resort to other methods … and if possible take DNA samples to identify them.”
Fuego erupted without much warning on Sunday. The fast-moving flows overtook people in homes and streets with temperatures reaching as high as 1,300 degrees, AP said. Hot ash and volcanic gases also can cause rapid asphyxiation.
“We were at a party, celebrating the birth of a baby, when one of the neighbors shouted at us to come out and see the lava that was coming,” one distraught woman told the wire service. “We didn’t believe it, and when we went out the hot mud was already coming down the street.”
By Tuesday, the death toll had risen to 69, but was expected to rise—“probably in the hundreds,” Otto Mazariegos, president of the Association of Municipal and Departmental Firefighters, told the New York Times. Rescue workers had yet to reach sites on the south side of the volcano, which were inaccessible.
PBS News Hour explained what was behind Fuego’s lethality. The eruption was in the form of a pyroclastic flow, a hot and fast-moving storm of solid rock, accompanied by hot gases.
“The bottom [of the cloud] is a jumble of chaotic [lava] rocks. It’s large boulders that are breaking up into smaller pieces,” said Janine Krippner, a volcanologist at Concord University. “They can knock trees down like matchsticks and destroy houses. They can send cars flying. They’re incredibly dangerous.”
Pyroclastic flows are very different threats than the ones posed by the lava flows in Hawaii, which move sluggishly, Erik Klemetti, a volcanologist at Denison University in Ohio, told the News Hour.
“These pyroclastic flows just erase everything in their path,” Klemetti said.
President Jimmy Morales said in a statement posted to Facebook that it is a time for Guatemalans to come together in “unity, prayer and solidarity.”