Sunday was market day in many of the villages beneath the Volcan de Fuego, the BBC reported. People would have been enjoying the weekend, probably sitting down to lunch, when the top of the mountain exploded.
Fuego had erupted before — just a few months earlier, in fact, and many times before that. Rising into the sky about 25 miles west of Guatemala City, it is one of the most active volcanoes on the continent, the BBC wrote. Thus the name: Volcano of Fire.
But on Sunday, its fire was unlike any Guatemala had seen in more than a century.
A tendril of hot gas and black ash began to twist out of the volcano shortly before noon. It looked almost peaceful, at first.
A nearby hiker stopped and filmed the spectacle. In forests farther away, birds continued to chirp as the plume expanded, shrouding the mountain from which it issued.
But behind the shroud, a lahar was forming: a pyroclastic stew of hot mud, boulders, ash, gas and lava — a 1,300-degree river of hell that can move faster than anyone can run.
About three and a half hours after Fuego erupted, NBC reported, the lahar came down the mountain.
The Volcan de Fuego blows out a thick cloud of ash, as seen from Alotenango, Guatemala, on June 3. (AP)
Jorge Luis Altuve was on the volcano with Guatemala’s mountain rescue brigade that day, he told the BBC, in search of someone who had disappeared days before.
“At first, we thought it had started to rain,” he said. “But then I heard something hitting my safety helmet, and I said to one of my colleague, ‘This is not rain; these are stones!’”
The brigade spent hours descending the volcano in a night-dark cloud of ash.
The lahar beat them to the ground.
Hilda Lopez was at a party in San Miguel Los Lotes, at the base of the mountain. A baby had just been born in the village, she told the Associated Press.
Her neighbor shouted to the partyers: Come and see the lava. “We didn’t believe it,” Lopez said, “and when we went out, the hot mud was already coming down the street.”
Unlike the syrupy-slow lava that has been leaking from Hawaii’s Kilauea volcano in recent weeks, Fuego’s pyroclastic flows raced toward the lowlands, taking people by surprise.
Several miles from the volcano, a crowd had gathered at a bridge along Highway 14 to watch Fuego’s plume expand across the sky.
A torrent of ash hit with almost no warning — coming not from the sky, but along the ground beneath the bridge. This pyroclastic flow splashed over the guard rails, shooting boulders into the air like fireplace sparks.
Within 15 seconds, the bridge had been swallowed. It had become part of the cloud.
Two children were fatally burned while watching the eruption from such a bridge, the Associated Press reported.
Along the same highway, entire towns were consumed as thoroughly as that bridge. Molten rock set houses on fire. Telediario showed video of bodies encrusted in the hot, dark sludge that covered El Rodeo.
“Unfortunately, El Rodeo was buried,” the general secretary of Guatemala’s disaster management agency, Sergio Cabanas, told Sky News.
Thousands of people across the region were evacuated, the AP reported. Photos show some squeezed into the backs of pickup trucks — standing room only. In a video published by the Honduran outlet Noti Bomba, people wept in fear as they drove from a miles-high wall of ash.
The military, police, Red Cross and unknown numbers of volunteers tried to rescue people who could not escape by themselves. Videos showed them moving single-file through the villages, on narrow paths between steaming pools of slurry.
The Guardian published a photo of a woman being carried across a street that had turned as black as the ash-choked sky. A firefighter wept as he departed the ruins of El Rodeo. A police officer tripped and fell beneath a blanket of steam. Hot volcanic gases overcame Juan Fernando Galindo as he tried to lead his neighbors out of danger, according to NBC.
Other villages were impossible to reach across the volcano flows Sunday. Lopez had escaped, but wept as she told the AP that she had to leave her mother in San Miguel Los Lotes, where at least 18 bodies were later counted.
Fuego’s fires finally dimmed and cooled late Sunday night.
Come daylight, a huge gash of slurry bisected the mountainside, and the reported death toll rose from 25 to 33, then to 62, with many more feared lost in that sludge.
A 5.2-magnitude earthquake struck off the southern coast of Guatemala after searches resumed Monday, though its impact was not immediately known.
The ground was still so hot in some areas that the rescuers’ shoes melted, the AP reported. And inside the villages, “workers told of finding bodies so thickly coated with ash they appeared to be statues.”
Ash had fallen across the country for miles — so much that soldiers had to sweep it off the airport runways in the capital. In photographs of Fuego’s aftermath, buildings, cars, trees and corpses are all painted in the same dead grays.
The only spots of color in some photos are the living — the yellow T-shirt of someone in the middle of a ruined village, or the bright-blue dust mask of a man in El Rodeo who sat beside a pool filled with the ruins of his village and the remains of his neighbors.