Mudslides kill 38 people in Ecuador

Published: 15 June 2001 0:00 CET

On June 10, devastating mudslides, triggered by torrential rains, left at least 38 people dead and hundreds homeless in six provinces. Most of the landslides occurred around the town of Baeza, some 70 kilometres east of Quito, the capital.

In Baeza alone, at least 50 people were buried and 17 of them are still under the mud, according to Daniel Arteaga, Director of the Ecuadorian Red Cross national relief department. The provinces of Pichincha and Napo are among the most severely affected regions in the country.

In the province of Chimborazo, the river Chimbo burst its banks, destroying four bridges and leaving 17 communities isolated. In Zamora, 620 km south east of Quito, 316 families were affected by flooding when the river overflowed.

Renewed activity of the Tungurahua volcano has added to the destruction; recent eruptions dumped large amounts of ash on surrounding areas. Last year, the volcano erupted, forcing the evacuation of 20,000 people from the city of Baños.

"At this point, we have four main concerns", said Daniel Arteaga. "To rescue people still buried under the mud, to reach the 17 isolated communities of Chimborazo, to help the 20,000 inhabitants of Baños who are threatened by volcanic activity and mudslides, and to monitor the increasing level of the rivers."

The quick response of Ecuadorian Red Cross community brigades and rescue teams during the first hours of the disaster allowed them to pull 10 people alive out of the mud in the town of Papallacta, 63 kilometres east of Quito, well-known by tourists for its thermal waters. "This demonstrates once again that the training and many hours of practice with the communities is effective", stressed Arteaga.

Local Red Cross volunteers often perform acts of heroism in these circumstances, even though many have family members and friends still buried under the mud. Jorge Arteaga is a telecom volunteer who, three weeks ago, suffered neck injuries in an accident, which forced him to wear a brace neck.

He was on his way to install a 40-metre tall antenna to improve telecommunications between Papallacta and Red Cross headquarters, where the relief operation was being coordinated, when something caught his eye. "I saw a hand and part of a body buried under the mud", he explains, "so I just decided to rescue the person without taking into account my neck problem. This was a question of seconds, the person could die and I decided to do what I have been doing for almost 15 years. I feel very happy to know that I saved the life of a four-year-old child. That is why we are here", Jorge adds, modestly, "to bring hope and save lives."