The woman in the green sweater and the blue checked apron had apparently used her body to shelter a baby girl. But they were both buried alive in the avalanche of mud and concrete that crashed down the mountainside here, taking her home and another 50 houses with it.
"It sounded like a thunderclap of dynamite," said 50-year-old Carmen Lopez, a neighbor who escaped the river of debris and dirt that was once Teziutlan's working class community of La Aurora. "Everybody was screaming."
That was Tuesday afternoon. Many residents had been sent home from factories and children had stayed home from school because of torrential rains that knocked out the electricity. And then La Aurora -- a terraced stack of concrete-block and tin-roofed houses crowned with the city cemetery -- fell off a mountainside, killing at least 85 people and leaving an estimated 300 missing, according to town officials.
Lopez's neighbors, the woman and the baby she tried vainly to save, were among 13 people dug from the mud today by hundreds of soldiers, policemen and local volunteers. They used bulldozers, pick axes, shovels and their bare hands to search for bodies in the tangle of collapsed walls, uprooted trees and splintered furniture that covers the hillside.
The disaster has stunned this south-central Mexican town, where nearly half the workers stitch pants, shirts and other products for big-name U.S. companies such as Calvin Klein, Guess, Tommy Hilfiger and Levi Strauss. It resulted in the largest number of deaths in one town from the mudslides and floods that have killed at least 333 people across six southern and central Mexican states this week. Nearly half the deaths have occurred in Puebla, the state where Teziutlan is located.
President Ernesto Zedillo, who toured flood-ravaged areas of Puebla and Veracruz states today with members of his cabinet, said after touring Teziutlan, "Sadly, for Mexico this will be the tragedy of the decade." He appealed for patience from the victims, saying repairs cannot be made in a day, "but we're going to go as fast as possible."
Tropical depressions dumped more than two feet of water on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico and parts of the Sierra Madre Oriental Mountains, where towns like Teziutlan cling to steep slopes and overhang the banks of rugged ravines that became chutes for the flood waters this week.
In Teziutlan, a 6,529-foot-high, 479-year-old colonial town that sprawls across the mountains, the rain-soaked faces of at least a dozen hillsides simply slid down the terrain, leaving ugly brown wounds broken by brightly colored clothes, broken chunks of what were once modest homes and the plastic balls, dolls and other toys of childhoods lost.
In a matter of minutes just after midday on Tuesday, tons of mud and rows of pastel-colored tombs from the town cemetery crashed onto the tin roofs of houses stacked like matchboxes on the overbuilt slope that is La Aurora. Taking debris with them, they slid along in a fatal torrent as far as the cornfields below.
"The collapse of a mountain is a dry sound," said Jorge Lara, a town medical examiner whose office overlooks the old city cemetery. "I heard thunder, and when I looked outside, the houses that had been there before had disappeared. Everything was destroyed."
Lara and others in the medical examiner's office joined dozens who stumbled down the shorn hillside and waded into knee-deep muck to try to save their neighbors. All Tuesday afternoon and until well past dark, then from sunrise to Wednesday afternoon, dozens of townspeople shoveled and pawed through the mud and concrete slabs in search of survivors -- with no help from outside.
With roads into the town cut or flooded, Mexican soldiers and state police arrived at the scene of the disaster more than 48 hours later, according to survivors and city officials.
Desperate town officials launched their own emergency Web site (www.teziutlan.com.mx) that included 20 pictures of wrecked homes and neighborhoods, lists of residents in temporary shelters and emergency supplies the town urgently needs, including bottled water, food and antibiotics.
As rescuers delivered the bruised and bloated bodies of men, women and children to the medical examiner's office today, long lines of their relatives stood in a cold drizzle, awaiting identification of the victims. In the town square, meanwhile, people awaited Zedillo's arrival while a blue pickup truck carrying one lavender coffin and a tiny white one rolled slowly through the crowd, followed by dozens of mourners on foot, carrying armloads of fresh flowers.
Criticism of the government's slow response in several states mounted. The Group of 100, an influential organization of Mexican intellectuals, blasted the "ineptitude" of the nation's civil protection and emergency response systems and called on the federal government to fund relief efforts "and not just wash its hands by saying the situation is due to a natural phenomenon."
Correspondent John Ward Anderson in Mexico City contributed to this report.