Hundreds Of People Feared Dead In Mexico Landslide

Officials in Oaxaca state said at least seven people are confirmed dead and 100 are missing after the early morning landslide in the town of Santa Maria de Tlahuitoltepec. At least 100 homes were buried.

Rescue workers in Mexico are trying to get to victims of a massive landslide in the southern state of Oaxaca after a hillside collapsed in a remote village early Tuesday.

Initial reports said as many as 1,000 people may have been trapped in the landslide; rescue workers say they have so far recovered seven bodies.

Not only was the village of Santa Maria Tlahuitoltepec, about 130 miles southeast of Mexico City, hit by a landslide, but the main road into it is also blocked by mud. Communication with the village, in the remote mountainous Sierra Juarez region of Oaxaca, has been sporadic and only over satellite phones.

Oaxaca Gov. Ulises Ruiz, speaking by phone with the Mexican television network Televisa, said the landslide occurred in the early hours of the morning while most of the villagers were asleep. He said a 200-meter-wide section of a hill above Tlahuitoltepec crashed into it. He said 500 to 1,000 people could be buried.

At least 100 homes were buried, and residents who made it out have had no success in digging out their neighbors, said Donato Vargas, an official in Santa Maria de Tlahuitoltepec reached by a satellite telephone.

"We have been using a backhoe but there is a lot of mud,” he said. “We can't even see the homes, we can't hear shouts, we can't hear anything."

An eighth person was killed in another mudslide in the state of Oaxaca. Weeks of heavy rains, including those brought by Hurricane Karl and Tropical Storm Matthew, have caused havoc and dozens of other deaths in southern Mexico, Central America and parts of South America.

Vargas said the slide dragged houses packed with sleeping families some 1,300 feet downhill, along with cars, livestock and light poles.

"We were all sleeping and all I heard was a loud noise, and when I left the house I saw that the hill had fallen," Vargas said. "We were left without electricity, without telephone and we couldn't help them. There was no way to move the mud."

Vargas said he contacted the governor on the town's satellite phone, but that eight hours after the slide no rescue crews had reached the area.

Gov. Ruiz said heavy rains continue to fall in the area and are hampering relief efforts. He said officials in the state are gathering heavy equipment and sending it to the area.

The rescuers’ first job is to reopen the road to the village. A bridge on the road has collapsed and mudslides have blocked the route in several other sections.

Mexican relief officials had been coping with the aftermath of Hurricane Karl that pounded the neighboring state of Veracruz two weeks ago. The Red Cross was redirecting crews from the Gulf Coast to Oaxaca and trying to send them in by helicopter. The Mexican military says it is sending canine search and rescue teams.

It is unclear how many people may be trapped alive in the landslide but the governor says he hopes the rescue crews are able to get to Tlahuitoltepec in time.

Meanwhile, Vargas, the regional official, said there is another hill about to give way in another area of the community of 9,000 people.

"We are in a serious risk situation," Vargas said. "In all of our neighborhoods, there are houses and roads cracked and about to fall."

President Felipe Calderon offered his condolences in a statement and said Interior Minister Francisco Blake would be in charge of coordinating federal rescue efforts.

Huge swaths of riverside communities in southern Mexico were still under water Tuesday -- flooding exacerbated by the passage of Karl and Matthew. Before the landslide, at least 15 deaths in Mexico were blamed on the hurricane. In Colombia, about 30 people were buried Monday by a landslide northwest of Bogota, the capital. Many were changing from one bus to another because a mountain road was blocked.

In Honduras, authorities said four people, including a child, drowned in rivers and creeks swollen by Tropical Storm Matthew. The National Emergencies Commission said Tuesday that three adults died in the town of El Oregano and a 10-year-old child in the Caribbean coast town of La Lima.

NPR's Jason Beaubien in Mexico City and The Associated Press contributed to this report Copyright 2010 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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