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.
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. Interior Secretary Miguel Angel Osorio 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.
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.
Manuel, the same storm that devastated Acapulco, gained hurricane force and rolled into the northern state of Sinaloa on Thursday before starting to weaken, falling again to tropical storm strength.
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.
Interior Secretary Miguel Angel Osorio Chong told local media that conditions were still so unstable in La Pintada on Thursday, three days after the slide, that rescuers hadn’t been able to recover any bodies yet.
So isolated is Acapulco that cargo ships have been contracted to supply food to the city by sea.
At an air base on the outskirts of Acapulco, hundreds of increasingly angry and frustrated tourists 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.