ALAUSI – A huge landslide swept over an Andean community in central Ecuador, burying dozens of homes, killing at least seven people and sending rescuers on a frantic search for survivors, authorities said Monday.
Earlier in the day, officials had reported 16 deaths, but President Guillermo Lasso put the confirmed toll at seven as he arrived Monday night at the scene of the disaster in Alausí, about 137 miles south of the capital, Quito. Officials also raised the number of people reported missing to 62.
Lasso lamented the tragedy and promised people in the town that “we will continue working" on the search effort.
Ecuador’s Risk Management Secretariat said more than 30 people were rescued after the mountainside collapsed around 10 p.m. Sunday. It said 23 people were injured.
“My mother is buried" under the mud, said Luis Ángel González, 58, who also lost other family members Sunday. "I am so sad, devastated. There is nothing here, no houses, no anything. We are homeless (and) without family.”
The risk management agency estimated 500 people and 163 homes were affected by the disaster, which also destroyed a portion of the Pan-American Highway.
The governor of Chimborazo, Ivan Vinueza, told The Associated Press that some of the injured were taken to area hospitals. He said officials had urged people to evacuate the area after landslides and cracks began to develop about two months ago. Some followed the advice, and by Saturday, as tremors intensified, others fled.
Area residents told local media they heard tremors on the mountain before the landslide, which was estimated to be about 150 meters (490 feet) wide and nearly a half mile (700 meters) long. It swept away trees, homes and other buildings. More than fifty houses were buried under tons of mud of debris.
The emergency response agency said 60% of potable water service in the area was affected by the landslide. The communication’s office of the presidential office said some schools would be switching to online classes.
Firefighters from a half dozen cities were dispatched to the area to help. Rescuers focused on the flanks of the landslide where they found traces and debris of houses.
Rescuer and paramedic Alberto Escobar said it was unlikely more survivors would be found because of the time that had elapsed.
He said the search would continue as long as it did not rain.
Video from cameras connected to the country’s emergency service network showed people fleeing their homes with help from neighbors. It also showed people transporting appliances and other belongings in vehicles.
Survivors, many housed in temporary shelters, cried over their misfortune.
Among them was the Zuña family, who were staying at the Iglesia Matriz de Alausí, where rooms for catechism or parish meetings were adapted with bunk beds days ago after authorities declared an emergency in the area due to the risk of landslides.
Sonia Guadalupe Zuña said her mother was reluctant to leave what they had built over the years.
“We went to the shelter, but my mother didn’t want to,” Zuña said. “Later, my daughter went to convince her. When they walked along the rails, everything collapsed. They arrived covered in dirt and crying.”
Save for the clothes they had on, Zuña's family lost everything.
“I don’t know where, but we’re all leaving," she said crying. "My parents taught us that by working hard, you get material things, but being together is priceless.”
Associated Press writers Gonzalo Solano in Quito and Regina Garcia Cano in Caracas, Venezuela, contributed to this report.