The Miami Herald
November 3, 1998
Avalanche of mud entombs villages in a flash of horror

             By ANDRES VIGLUCCI
             Herald Staff Writer

             ROLANDO RODRIGUEZ, Nicaragua -- The colossal wall of mud that the rain
             propelled down the slope of the Volcán Casita swept away two of Ismael
             Valdivias' brothers and their father.

             It took 12-year-old Calderon Gonzalez's mother and father, his three sisters, his

             It killed as many as 1,500 others and spared few.

             The landslide crushed their homes, their school, their clinic, their livelihood: herds
             of cattle and crops of corn, beans, oranges and lemons.

             By the time the river of earth stopped flowing, a matter of mere minutes, their
             neighborhoods and their community, the very landscape around it, had been
             obliterated. The mud carried off even their trees.

             It left the survivors only despair.

             ``Please help us,'' said Jesucristo Bacedano Estrada, 41, one of the few survivors
             of a disaster whose full dimension is not yet known. ``We have nothing. Not
             clothes, not food, not even water to drink.''

             Before the remnants of Hurricane Mitch brought the rain that brought the
             avalanche, Rolando Rodriguez was a peaceful if poor farming community of about
             800 people. It's one of several small hamlets strung along the lush slope of a
             dormant volcano above the town of Posoltega.

             Without warning

             Though the landslide carried damage and loss of life to all the villages, Rolando
             Rodriguez and a neighboring community of 600 with the hopeful name of El
             Porvenir -- The Future -- bore the brunt. It came with no warning last Friday
             morning after several days of ceaseless rain.

             Military rescuers have evacuated about 160 injured or sick people from the area.
             Residents remaining at what was Rolando Rodriguez say about 40 have stayed
             behind, living in the handful of homes that were untouched, some having missed the
             edge of the mud by just yards.

             Most of the rest are unaccounted for.

             Most numerous among the survivors are children, many now alone in the world.
             Authorities said parents put their children out of harm's way, often up in trees, then
             were sucked away by the landslide.

             News of the devastation took two days to filter out, and when it did, Nicaragua
             was shocked. Though Mitch's rains battered the country for days, flooding out
             residents on the shores of Lake Managua and wreaking havoc near the Honduran
             border, no one expected a disaster of this magnitude.

             Many Nicaraguans were already critical of the government's allegedly meager
             efforts to prepare its citizens for Mitch, and as details of the landslide northwest of
             Managua emerged, many complained that officials were slow to respond.

             Survivors brought word

             Rescue efforts did not begin in earnest until Sunday, two days after the mudslide,
             when survivors straggled on foot into Posoltega and other nearby towns. The
             mayor of Posoltega used a cellular phone to call a Managua radio station to plead
             for help.

             But Nicaraguan Defense Minister Pedro Joaquin Chamorro, the son of former
             President Violeta Chamorro, said the government moved as soon as it learned of
             the landslide. He said there was probably nothing that could have been done to
             warn area residents.

             ``This was not a flood zone. This is a high area. There is no telling where
             something like this will happen,'' Chamorro said. ``In the history of Nicaragua, I
             don't think there has ever been a landslide like this.''

             Chamorro said the army's five big Russian-made helicopters were immediately
             pressed into action. Military rescue squads dug survivors out of the mud and
             brought them out of collapsed homes, many of them seriously injured or near

             The helicopters are the only way in and out of the region, which has been cut off
             from the rest of Nicaragua by floods that knocked out major bridges and

             Two U.S. military Blackhawk helicopters arrived Monday in Nicaragua to begin
             ferrying relief supplies to disaster areas where survivors of the mudslides and
             flooding are being cared for by squads of volunteers and municipal officials.

             An appeal for help

             But the needs are desperate, Chamorro said.

             ``We are trying to organize delivery of food to major towns and isolated areas,'' he
             said. ``Let the international community know that we need everything, especially
             food and medicine.''

             The government doesn't know precisely what happened up on Volcán Casita.

             Local military officials who inspected the site believe a hunk of the volcano's side,
             sodden with rainfall, suddenly crumbled. Settlements nearer the lip of the volcano,
             where the mudslide was narrow, survived with relatively little damage.

             As it tumbled downhill, however, it fed on itself, growing wider and more
             powerful, and dragging with it trees, houses and human bodies.

             By the time it reached El Porvenir and Rolando Rodriguez, about halfway down
             the slope, it was an unstoppable force of nature.

             Ismael Valdivias, 20, said he was sitting down to lunch in his home, the last house
             down the slope in the village, at 11:30 a.m. Over the drone of the rain, he heard a

             ``I thought it was a helicopter coming, and I went outside to look.''

             A narrow escape

             What he saw instead was a wall of mud several stories high, coming rapidly
             toward him down what had been a creek bed and is today a ravine 30 feet deep.
             He ran, crossing the creek ahead of the onrushing mud, which missed him by scant

             ``Like a sea wave, one came by, and then another came after it,'' he said.

             His brother Santos, 19, saved himself by grabbing a fence post, which also saved
             three other adults and three children who managed to hold on to it until the mud
             and water stopped coming.

             Another brother, Apolinar, 25, ran out and was knocked down by the force of the
             mud, which lifted him up and turned him over. He said he scrambled to his feet
             only to see his daughter, Sandra Lucia, 3, nearly carried away and already
             half-buried in the mud. Somehow, he lifted her out and joined Ismael across the

             The next day, they found their father's body in the next community downslope,
             about five miles away, and buried him there. Two other brothers are missing.

             Calderon Gonzalez, the 12-year-old, lived because he was staying with his
             grandmother across the creek when the landslide swept off his family's home. For
             two days, he said, he returned to the site, hoping to find that someone had
             survived. On the third, he said, he knew no one had.

             His grandmother, Mariana Centeno, lost her husband, two children and several
             grandchildren, she said, sobbing.

             Victims are found

             The bodies of others not so lucky lay scattered throughout what is now a wide
             mud flat. A crew arrived Monday afternoon to cremate the bodies.

             Amalia Castro's body lay where the mud deposited her, awaiting cremation. She
             left behind a husband and four small children.

             Nearby were the bodies of two small children, one unreachable and the other
             bloated beyond recognition.

             At the bottom of the volcano's slope in the town of Chichigalpa, Councilman
             Roberto Lopez Marcia said scores of bodies that washed down in the mudslide lie
             in cane fields surrounding the nearby San Antonio sugar refinery.

             In town, the authorities turned a high school into a makeshift shelter and
             emergency room for landslide survivors. The injured are stabilized there, and those
             needing further treatment are taken to regional hospitals. Classrooms were filled
             with dazed survivors, from newborns to the elderly.

             The most common injuries are broken bones and deep cuts and scrapes, many
             times infected and some gangrenous in cases where victims were trapped for two
             days under mud and debris.

             A young survivor

             One boy from Rolando Rodriguez, 12-year-old Kelvin Madariaga, apparently the
             only survivor of a family of nine, was scraped raw from his shoulders to his

             ``People are traumatized,'' said pharmacist Danilo Hernandez, busily dispensing
             drugs to a team of volunteer doctors and nurses in the clinic.

             Despite the area's poverty, most of the clinic's supplies, he said, were donated by

             ``The community has brought us everything,'' Hernandez said. ``We are sure that if
             the community had more money, they would bring even more.''

             But municipal officials said the supplies are rapidly dwindling as the number of
             victims seeking help increases daily.

             ``We are doing all that we can,'' town Councilwoman Sochil Cerda said, ``but this
             is disastrous and it's growing worse.''


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