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,
It killed as many as 1,500 others and spared few.
The landslide crushed their homes, their school, their clinic, their livelihood:
of cattle and crops of corn, beans, oranges and lemons.
By the time the river of earth stopped flowing, a matter of mere minutes,
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
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.
Though the landslide carried damage and loss of life to all the villages,
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
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
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
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
from the rest of Nicaragua by floods that knocked out major bridges and
Two U.S. military Blackhawk helicopters arrived Monday in Nicaragua to
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
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
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
the slope, it was an unstoppable force of nature.
Ismael Valdivias, 20, said he was sitting down to lunch in his home, the
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
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
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
mud flat. A crew arrived Monday afternoon to cremate the bodies.
Amalia Castro's body lay where the mud deposited her, awaiting cremation.
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
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
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
``The community has brought us everything,'' Hernandez said. ``We are sure
the community had more money, they would bring even more.''
But municipal officials said the supplies are rapidly dwindling as the
victims seeking help increases daily.
``We are doing all that we can,'' town Councilwoman Sochil Cerda said,
is disastrous and it's growing worse.''
Copyright © 1998 The Miami Herald