Grief and despair as hope fades for more survivors

El Salvador quake: As relatives try to identify the bodies, fingers are being pointed at contractors who created the conditions for a mudslide
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The Independent US

Under the arc lights, heavy moving equipment rumbles over a six-block-wide great gash of mud and uprooted trees that cleaves the Las Colinas housing development into two.

Under the arc lights, heavy moving equipment rumbles over a six-block-wide great gash of mud and uprooted trees that cleaves the Las Colinas housing development into two.

Half a dozen mechanical diggers grind their gears and gouge great chunks from the rubble heap where 270 tidy bungalows once stood - just 20 minutes drive from El Salvador's capital - before Saturday's massive earthquake.

Troops of Salvadorean, Mexican, and Venezuelan soldiers briefly halt their own digging with pickaxes and shovels to glance at what mundane scraps the metal jaws yield. Relatives peer intently, hoping for some sign of missing family members: broken crockery, a football jersey, a dismembered limb.

When a volunteer casually carries a detached arm by the wrist and heaves it onto a stretcher, Sergio de Leonel recoils, but his companion steps forward. "Didn't that look like Emilio's watch?" he asks eagerly. He scrambles over the litter-strewn mounds, staying clear of search dogs and shifting slopes marked off with yellow tape. No, not Emilio's.

It's a national tragedy, but also a highly personal one, and he grieves for his friend. International rescue teams doubt that anyone remains alive under the avalanche of mud that buried the community, but the hunt continues. Numbed relatives stay on the sidelines clutching family photo albums and bundles of official documents, getting ready to identify bodies at the morgue.

While the ground lurches with spasmodic aftershocks, and the death count across the country tops 600, environmentalists are starting to say that the fatalities at Las Colinas were due to human negligence, rather than to unpredictable seismic activity. No one can be blamed for faultlines, but businessmen ignoring peril for profits is blameworthy, they say.

Fingers are being pointed at contractors who ignored repeated warnings not to build on such an unstable slope, but all allegations are denied. Yet even after Congress was petitioned last year to stop construction, local builders continued to extricate sand and created caverns close to a subterranean river that underlies the ridge over Las Colinas. Still, the lawmakers chose not to act.

Green activists maintain that this was an avoidable catastrophe, and that although an earthquake was a trigger, greed was the real explanation for so many deaths in one place. Felipe Peñate, the manager of the Gloria farm, located near the top of the treacherous incline, concurs that all the signs were there. He said that following San Salvador's last big earthquake, 14 years ago, his farmland sagged 60cm in some spots.

Denuding the steep slope to carve out new lots below him had only increased the risk. He added that deep crevices have appeared on the dirt track that runs along the crest above Las Colinas. Many residents fear that more of the hillside, which has not yet been reinforced, may soon collapse because seismic shuddering has not ceased.

Neighbours in Las Colinas whose houses are intact were evacuated, not only because of potential slides but due to the threat of disease from the unretrieved dead. The houses that are still standing do not necessarily belong to survivors; if the inhabitants happened to have remained inside, they might still be alive.

Since the quake, most Salvadoreans prefer to sleep under the stars rather than get trapped inside, even though there is a risk of contracting dengue haemorrhagic fever, which is endemic in El Salvador. Running water now is almost as scarce in the capital and its suburbs as vital antibiotics.

As hours turn into days and sleepless nights, nerves are on edge and more calamity looms. Dustclouds visible on the rim of a dormant volcano sparked false rumours that an eruption was imminent. But, little by little, calm is returning.

A family huddles near a fallen telephone line just on the edge of an ugly scree of building rubble and mud. Don Carlos Rivera Zelaya points out to army engineers in Las Colinas where his daughter's kitchen used to be. Patricia, one of her best friends, guards the stack of belongings they have managed to retrieve. Four muddy books, a family bible, a red cotton sash and a plastic tricycle are bundled together.

"My granddaughter got the trike for Christmas. Nena was just 18 months old," Mr Rivera said. When firemen came by with the canine search corps, and an excited boxer started pawing the ground, he rose to his feet expectantly. But nothing turned up. "We will wait here a while and then check the morgue again," he said softly.

Doctor Francisco Villanueva, a traumatologist from Mexico City, was trapped 15 metres underground in the aftermath of San Salvador's last big quake while looking for victims. He credited his survival to Yoga, using the discipline of controlled breathing and flexibility in restricted places to wriggle up to the surface.

The doctor, 52, has gone on to retrieve victims from devastating earthquakes all over the world with a volunteer Mexican rescue squad called "Los Topos" (The Moles). He views all the machinery with alarm. "We generally wait 72 hours, even 96, because through shock the body can cope with pain and survive. But then this mud was tight packed and suffocating."

Nameless bodybags were tossed into a mass grave on Sunday by Red Cross officials attempting to curb the spread of disease. "It must have been done in panic," Dr Villanueva said, obviously distressed. "I have a lot of respect for the dead - as much as the living."