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first_imgGUATEMALA CITY – Dozens of foreign tourists fled devastated lakeside Mayan towns on foot and by helicopter Sunday as Guatemalan officials said they would abandon communities buried by landslides and declare them mass graveyards. Villagers who had swarmed over the vast mudslides with shovels and axes digging for hundreds of missing gave up the effort Sunday, five days after Hurricane Stan made landfall on the Gulf of Mexico coast, bringing torrential rains before weakening to a tropical depression. More than 640 people died and hundreds more were missing across Central America and southern Mexico after a week of rains. In hardest-hit Guatemala, 519 bodies had been recovered and reburied. Some 338 people were listed as missing. “Panabaj will no longer exist,” said Mayor Diego Esquina, referring to the Mayan lakeside hamlet in Guatemala that was covered by a mudflow one-half-mile wide and 15 to 20 feet deep. “We are asking that it be declared a cemetery. We are tired. We no longer know where to dig.” Thousands of hungry and injured survivors mobbed helicopters delivering the first food to communities along Guatemala’s Pacific coast that have been cut off from the outside world for nearly a week. Hungry and desperate villagers grabbed wildly at bags of flour, rice and sugar when aid helicopters finally arrived on Sunday. As some foreign tourists worked shoulder to shoulder with Mayans in traditional cotton blouses and broad sashes to dig for missing victims, others hiked around mud-choked roads or boarded government helicopters in the second day of evacuations from the area around Lake Atitlan. Helicopters went to the nearby town of San Andres Semetabaj to fly out an estimated 20 Scandinavians trapped since mudslides cut off the area several days earlier. About 50 more tourists were hiking out of the lakeside town of Panajachel. “We got about 400 (tourists) out last night and were expecting more today,” Solomon Reyes of Guatemala’s Tourism Ministry said Sunday. In some areas the arrival of the Guatemalan military only complicated matters. Villagers in Panabaj refused to let the army in because of memories of a 1990 massacre there during the country’s 36-year civil war. But U.S. military helicopters from Joint Task Force Bravo, based at Soto Cano Air Base in Honduras, joined the rescue efforts with a half-dozen Blackhawk helicopters and one Chinook transport helicopter, running flights through dense clouds and heavy fog. “We’re still in search-and-rescue mode,” said Army Maj. Bob Schmidt. “We’re in the saving-life-and-limb thought process.” 160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set! AD Quality Auto 360p 720p 1080p Top articles1/5READ MOREThe top 10 theme park moments of 2019 Many of the missing apparently will simply be declared dead, and the mud that buried them will be declared hallowed ground. About 160 bodies have been recovered in Panabaj and nearby towns, and most have been buried in mass graves. Vice President Eduardo Stein said steps were being taken to give towns legal permission to declare hallowed ground where mud buried the missing. Attention turned to aiding thousands of hungry or injured survivors. Helicopters, including U.S. Blackhawks and Chinooks, fanned out across Guatemala to evacuate the wounded and bring supplies to more than 100 communities still cut off by mudslides and flooding. On Sunday, as aid workers reached the most remote areas, they learned that a mudslide had buried a storm shelter in the town of Tacana, about 12 miles from the Mexican border, where about 100 people had taken refuge from rains and flooding. Thirty-seven bodies had been dug from the shelter since the mudslide hit Wednesday, and 52 people were still missing, said Jorge Hernandez of the country’s civil defense agency. last_img read more