SAN MIGUEL LOS LOTES, Guatemala – Estuardo Hernandez, a 19-year-old worker at a plant nursery in the nearby city of Antigua, is certain he knows where his parents are, and the knowledge is driving him to desperation. He's sure they are buried inside the home where he grew up, covered by ash and other debris that swept down the Volcano of Fire into this small community.
Lying on his stomach, he reaches into a narrow space left between the top of a window and the tons of ash now filling the one-story house. The ash is almost up to the roof, and his efforts are so futile he stops and weeps softly.
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Guatemala's government suspended the search for the dead Thursday, saying wet weather and still-hot volcanic material were too dangerous for rescuers. The bulldozers and backhoes that Hernandez would need to uncover his parents are at the bottom of the hill, concentrating on re-opening a highway blocked by a mountain of ash and boulders.
The government said at least 109 people were killed when the volcano exploded Sunday, and there are nearly 200 listed as missing. Relatives and friends have been left in many cases to continue searching with their hands or the few tools at their disposal.
Hernandez was talking to his father, Margarito Hernandez, on the phone when millions of tons of volcanic ash tore through San Miguel Los Lotes, a hamlet sitting on the volcano's slope.
"He called me at 3:13 p.m. Sunday," said the younger Hernandez, who was working in Antigua that day "The last thing he told me was to go far from here ... the last thing I could hear was him saying: 'Get inside! There's a lot of fire out there.' I say they stayed in the house."
Hernandez peers into the narrow open space and points to the back wall of the house, where the lahar hit the structure. "That's where they had the beds. I believe they went there."
In the four days since the disaster, no government official had even passed by to collect that information, or lend a hand, he said. "Without help we can't do anything ... the only thing that matters to the government is the highway. Why not bring machinery in here?"
A few houses down the slope, construction worker Alejandro Esqueque, 45, got tired of waiting for the government to recover the bodies of his mother, three brothers and four nieces and nephews. He organized a group of fellow construction workers and friends Thursday to dig with shovels into the house, which is filled to the roof with ash.
They made the most progress of any of the dozen families who defied police roadblocks to search on their own, and even they got only about three feet down into the mass of rapidly solidifying, still hot ash.
"We need a backhoe, but they (authorities) have to authorize it first and they don't give permission," Esqueque said.