ACAPULCO, Mexico (AP) — With a low, rumbling roar, an arc of dirt, rock and mud tumbled down the hillside in the remote mountain village of La Pintada, sweeping houses in its path, burying half the hamlet and leaving 68 people missing in its mad race to the river bed below.
It was the biggest known tragedy caused by twin weekend storms that struck Mexico, creating floods and landslides across the nation and killing at least 97 people as of Thursday — not counting those missing in La Pintada.
Interior Minister Interior Secretary Miguel Angel Osorio Chong said soldiers have recovered two bodies and continued to dig through the mud. He said that the work has been difficult because water is still running down hills in the area and there is risk of more landslides.
All of the nearly 400 surviving members of the village remember where they were at the moment the deadly wave struck on Monday afternoon, Mexico’s Independence Day.
Nancy Gomez, 21, said Thursday that she heard a strange sound and went to look out the doorway of her family’s house, her 1-year-old baby clutched in her arms. She saw the ground move, then felt a jolt from behind as her father tried to push her to safety.
She never saw him again. He’s among 68 missing in the slide or a second one that fell and buried victims and would-be rescuers alike.
When the rain-soaked hillside, drenched by days of rain during Tropical Storm Manuel, gave way, it swept Gomez in a wave of dirt that covered her entirely, leaving only a small air pocket between her and her baby.
“I screamed a lot, for them to come rescue me, but I never heard anything from my mother or father or my cousin,” she said as she lay on a foam mattress in a temporary shelter in Acapulco, her legs covered with deep welts. Eventually, relatives came from a nearby house and dug her and the baby out.
The missing from La Pintada were not yet included in the official national death toll of 97, according to Mexico’s federal Civil Protection coordinator, Luis Felipe Puente. Some 35,000 homes across the country were damaged or destroyed. Chong said he now had a list of names of 68 missing La Pintada residents, but suggested that some may be alive and may have taken refuge in neighboring ranches or hamlets.
Government photos show major mudslides and collapsed bridges on key highways, including the Highway of the Sun, a major four-lane expressway that links Acapulco to Mexico City. All the main arteries to the Pacific Coast resort town remained closed Thursday.
Federal officials set up donation centers for storm aid Thursday, but they faced stiff questioning about why, instead of warning people more energetically about the oncoming storms, they focused on Independence celebrations and a military parade that kept dozens of aircraft and emergency vehicles in Mexico City, instead of the states where they were most needed. Congressman Manuel Huerta of the leftist Labor Party said “the underlying issue is that the federal government bears a large part of the responsibility for this tragedy.”
Federal security spokesman Eduardo Sanchez brushed off the criticism, telling reporters that emergency “protocols were followed strictly.”
Manuel, the same storm that devastated Acapulco, gained hurricane force and rolled into the northern state of Sinaloa on Thursday morning before starting to weaken, falling again to tropical storm strength. It would continue to spread heavy rains inland, the U.S. National Hurricane Center said.
Sinaloa Gov. Mario Lopez Valdez says 100,000 thousand people have been affected by the storm and that one fisherman drowned in the village of Yameto. He didn’t say if that death is included in the national toll.
Sinaloa civil protection authorities said some areas were already flooding and more than 2,000 people were evacuated, many from small fishing villages on the coast.
And a tropical disturbance was moving toward Mexico’s soggy Gulf coast even as the country struggles to restore services and evacuate those stranded by flooding from Manuel and Ingrid, which hit the Gulf coast.
So isolated is Acapulco that cargo ships have been contracted to supply food to the city by sea.
President Enrique Pena Nieto said he is cancelling his trip to New York for the annual U.N. General Assembly because of the emergency.
Hundreds of stranded tourists remained lined up for a second day Thursday at an air base on the outskirts of Acapulco, where military aircraft were slowly ferrying people out of the resort.
Increasingly angry and frustrated by the long wait overnight and in the rain, they began to block army trucks heading into the base with what stranded travelers believed were wealthy, well-connected people or foreigners cutting the line to get a flight out. The angry crowds forced the trucks to detour a few blocks along the beach to get to the base.
Mexican officials said that more than 10,000 people had been flown out of the city on about 100 flights by Wednesday evening, just part of the 40,000 to 60,000 tourists estimated to be stranded in the city.
But their pain was nothing compared to that of Amelia Saldana, 43, a single mother who lost her four boys — twins aged 5, another aged 7 and the eldest, 17 — in the landslide in La Pintada.
Saldana had gone down to town’s main square for an Independence Day celebration, a rare time off for villagers who spent most of their days working in their coffee plantations. Because it was raining, Saldana told her sons to stay home while she went down to the square to get some of the free hominy stew being given away.
Then she heard the landslide, a low rumbling that villagers described as sounding like an earthquake. When she ran back to where her house once stood, it no longer existed.
“I tried to get back to my kids, but I couldn’t” Saldana said between sobs.
Associated Press writers Martin Duran in Culiacan, E. Eduardo Castillo, Adriana Gomez Licon and Olga R. Rodriguez in Mexico City contributed to this report.
Michael Weissenstein on Twitter: https://twitter.com/mweissenstein