MOCOA, Colombia (AFP) — Rescuers clawed through mud and timber Monday searching for survivors of a mudslide in southern Colombia that has killed 254 people including 43 children and left relatives desperately seeking loved-ones.
Babies were among those reported still missing after a sea of mud, boulders and debris engulfed the village of Mocoa, locals said.
Survivors said they had scrambled onto roofs or hung onto trees as the mud surged by. Some watched as their children and relatives were swept helplessly away.
Locals said it was never safe to live so close to the three rivers which overflowed after days of torrential rain, sweeping away homes, bridges, vehicles and trees.
With the mud still wet on Monday, “the search effort is continuing in order to find survivors,” a Red Cross spokesman told AFP.
“We are still within the 72-hour window that exists after a disaster like this” for finding people still alive.
But as the mud dries, the chances of survival will slip away.
Wilson Chilito, 22, said he scrambled onto the roof of a house from where he watched “people, fridges and houses” being swept away.
He lost his sister, mother-in-law and at least two other relatives.
“This was foreseen for a long time,” he told AFP as he packed up belongings from his home, his boots full of mud.
Founded in 1563, “the town has about 10 rivers running through it,” said Mocoa’s Mayor Jose Antonio Castro, quoted by newspaper El Espectador.
“That means it is not a place where a town should be located.”
Rescuers worked in stifling heat under a cloudy sky in the remote Amazon town, the capital of Putumayo department.
Debris was everywhere: buried cars, uprooted trees, children’s toys and odd shoes sticking up out of the mud.
Survivors gathered at the local hospital and at the cemetery to search for family members and friends.
President Juan Manuel Santos traveled to Mocoa on Saturday to oversee relief operations.
He announced the death toll of 254 including 43 children late Sunday, warning that it could continue to rise.
More than 200 people were injured in the disaster, he said.
“We offer our prayers for all of them. We send our condolences and the entire country’s sympathies to their families,” Santos wrote on Twitter.
Covered in mud, 38-year-old Marta Gomez told of going to search for her missing niece — and making a chilling find instead.
“I dug and dug and found what turned out to be a baby’s hand. It was horrible,” she said in a shelter set up for the newly homeless.
As she stood in line waiting to register for government aide for those who lost their houses, Gomez told AFP she had given up on finding her niece.
“The mud took her away. I’ll never see her again,” she said, clinging to the leash of her German shepherd dog.
Carlos Acosta recalled surviving by clinging to a tree branch and trying to hold on to his three-year-old son, Camilo.
“The water swept us away and then I was hit by rocks,” he said.
Acosta was knocked unconscious, and when he woke up the child was gone.
“I was dying due to a lack of air — so what did I do? I stuck my finger in my mouth and vomited a lot of mud,” Acosta, 25, told AFP.
“I sneezed out mud until I could breathe again.”
Santos said the mudslide destroyed a local aqueduct and knocked out power to much of the surrounding department.
He said four emergency water treatment plants would be set up “to avoid an epidemic and an even bigger public health crisis.”
Most of the hardest-hit neighborhoods in the town of 40,000 are poor and populated with people uprooted during Colombia’s five-decade-long civil war.
The Pacific northwest of South America has been hard hit in recent months by floods and mudslides, with scores killed in Peru and Ecuador.