Created: 11/08/2012 4:31 PM KSTP.com By: Leslie Dyste
The 10 members of the Vasquez family were found together under the rubble of the rock quarry that had been their livelihood, some in a desperate final embrace, others clinging to the faintest of dying pulses.
As Guatemalans sought Thursday to pick up the pieces after a 7.4-magnitude quake, one family's tragic story came to symbolize the horror of a disaster that killed at least 52 people, and left thousands of others huddling in the cold shadows of cracked adobe buildings, most without electricity or water.
On Thursday, neighbors came to pay their respects. They filed past 10 wooden caskets in the Vasquez family living room, and contemplated the unspeakable future that awaits the family's only surviving son. Justo Vasquez, his wife Ofelia Gomez, six children and two nephews died in the rubble.
Only the oldest son, Ivan, 19, survived. He had stayed in the house when the rest of his family went to the quarry, taking care of some last-minute details to receive his accounting degree - the first in his family to have a professional career. His father had been saving for a party to celebrate his Nov. 23 graduation.
"He died working," said Antonia Lopez, a sister-in-law of Justo Vasquez. "He was fighting for his kids."
Hundreds of villagers in the humble town of San Cristobal Cucho ran to dig the family out on Wednesday after Guatemala's biggest quake in 36 years. When they uncovered some of the children, one body still warm, two with pulses, they were in the arms of their father, who had tried to shield them from a falling mountain.
The death toll was expected to rise as 22 people remained missing, President Otto Perez Molina told a news conference. Eight were killed in the neighboring state of Quetzaltenango.
Perez said powerful 7.4-magnitude quake, felt as far as Mexico City 600 miles away, affected as many as 1.2 million Guatemalans. A little more than 700 people were in shelters, with most opting to stay with family or friends, he added.
"They have no drinking water, no electricity, no communication and are in danger of experiencing more aftershocks," Perez said. The president said there had been 70 aftershocks in the first 24 hours after the quake, some as strong as magnitude 5.1.
Damaged homes are among the biggest problems the country will face in the coming days, Perez added.
The Vasquezes were the only ones to die in San Cristobal Cucho, a mountain village of cobblestone streets, where buildings suffered some cracks and damage and early reports said the family had perished in a collapsed house.
Like the rest of several thousand people in town, the Vasquez family was humble, the parents without much education. Most of the people in the town are subsistence farmers or sell things on the streets and in the markets.
"We have never seen a tragedy like this. The whole town is sad," said brother Romulo Vasquez, whose 12-year old son, Ulises, also died at the quarry.
Justo Vasquez and his wife left for work at 5 a.m. Wednesday to the land they rented to quarry white rock that is pulverized to make cinder blocks. They returned later in the morning to eat breakfast, then took six of their seven children and two nephews back to the quarry with them, because the children were on vacation from school.
The oldest child to die was 14-year-old Daisy Vasquez, the youngest 3-year-old Dibel Vasquez.
The oldest son, Ivan, was too distraught to speak or even stay at the red-and-yellow block house where hundreds of people gathered passed by the caskets or waited outside the door marked by candles and just a few flowers. Wood smoke bathed the memorial as more than a dozen women in the back of the house cooked rice, beans, corn and eggs to feed the crowd.
"He was a very good father, he was a very good neighbor," said Antonia Lopez, who was among the many paying respects.
Guatemalans fearing aftershocks huddled in the streets of the nearby city San Marcos, the most affected area, where at least 40 people died. Others crowded inside its hospital, the only building in town left with electricity.
More than 90 rescue workers continued to dig with backhoes at a half-ton mound of sand at a second quarry that buried seven people.
"We started rescue work very early," said Julio Cesar Fuentes of the municipal fire department. "The objective is our hope to find people who were buried."
But they uncovered only more dead. One man was called to the quarry to identify his dead father. When he climbed into the sand pit and recognized the clothing, the son collapsed onto the shoulders of firefighters, crying: "Papa, Papa, Papa."
He and his father were not identified to the news media because other relatives had not been notified of the death.
Volunteers carrying boxes of medical supplies began arriving in the area in western Guatemala late Wednesday.
The quake, which was 20 miles deep, was centered 15 miles off the coastal town of Champerico and 100 miles southwest of Guatemala City. It was the strongest earthquake to hit Guatemala since a 1976 temblor that killed 23,000.
Perez said more than 2,000 soldiers were deployed to help with the disaster. A plane had made at least two trips to carry relief teams to the area.
Associated Press writer Ruiz-Goiriena in Guatemala City contributed to this report.
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