Nightmare in Nicaragua: A dark roar, and suddenly hell was upon them

January 27, 1999

Calixto Palacio said it sounded "like an earthquake, like rocks rumbling." Napoleón Narbaez described "a noise like helicopters right overhead." Maria Adriana Muñoz saw it. "The clouds were low and it was dark, but it looked like a monster up to the sky."

The three survivors of the massive mudslide at La Casita volcano in Nicaragua told their stories to Phoebe Griswold, Bishop Sturdie Downs of Nicaragua and those accompanying them on December 14 visit. Six weeks had passed since Hurricane Mitch had sent a nightmare of scalding water, mud, boulders and uprooted trees crashing into the communities at the base of the mountain, and still the people who had survived searched every day for bodies of their family members. "It hurts not being able to find my mother," Muñoz told the visitors. "I would have been comforted if I could have found just her bones to bury." With one hand on the reins of her horse and the other holding the hand of a boy about seven, she wept. "I couldn't find the body of my son ... I loved my son so much."

A canyon to the sea
She has come back to the scene of her tragedy, a scene shorn of all but memories. Nothing of the village of Rolando Rodriguez remains. The landscape that must once have held school and church and market is now a level plain of silt, sand and dirt dotted here and there with boulders five, six, seven feet high. The flat desolation stretches a mile in either direction where the thundering flow came through. In this Pacific Coast area, Hurricane Mitch brought not winds but rain. It rained for nine days straight before the mountain, an active volcano, collapsed under the pressure of accumulated water. With an almost unimaginable force, those waters, heated to a temperature witnesses can't estimate, came crashing down the slopes. The churning rock and mud moved with such power it carved out what looks like a canyon all the way to the sea, a distance of about 30 miles. In some spots, that canyon is 35 feet deep and as wide as a football field.

From the time the volcano collapsed until its torrent of gouging destruction reached the sea, only 12 hours passed. Jorans López, 25, a volunteer in the mayor's office at nearby Posoltega, described the aftermath of the mudslide in detail for the visitors.
"It started at 11:30 in the morning," he said. "At first we thought it was only a little flood, but then the dead started arriving in Posoltega and in the harbor. They had 85 bodies floating there and we began to realize it was more than a flood."

No warning
For those right at the foot of the mountain, there was almost no warning. From the time they heard the rumbling until the slide was on them, only five minutes elapsed, according to López. The horror did not end when the torrent met the sea. The rain continued for three more days and bodies continued to turn up toward the coast. According to Francisco Sanchez of the mayor's office, the mayor called the government for help. "It is a total disaster. The population is dying," she told them. "They did not believe her. They thought she was crazy." In fact, more than 1,500 people were killed and three villages wiped out entirely. It wasn't until three days later that the first army helicopter was sent to Posoltega to pick up would-be rescuers and make the trip to the volcano. "When the people jumped [out of the helicopter], they sank into the mud, some up to their necks," said López. They hadn't known the mud was still hot. There was no way to get them out for four days. Most of that team died.

Symbols of life
As Griswold, wife of Presiding Bishop Frank T. Griswold, and Downs walked over the site with the other members of their party-Ann Vest, interim director of the Presiding Bishop's Fund for World Relief; Isolina Downs, wife of the bishop; the Rev. Canon Ricardo Potter of the Episcopal Church's Anglican and Global Affairs Office; Bishop Cornelius Wilson of Costa Rica, primate of the Church of the Central American Region, and George Porter, diocesan administrator in Nicaragua-they found reminders of the tragedy.

A rough-crafted cross, pieced together out of debris and tied up with flowers, now wilted, marked the spot where the torso of one body had been pulled from the mud. The name written on the wood could no longer be read. Maria Adriana Muñoz told Potter that people came back every day to search. "In our hearts we keep hoping to find the bodies." She said people climb up on the biggest of the boulders and just sit there and cry. Before the visitors returned to the van that had driven them up the mud flow to the foot of the volcano, they joined hands to pray, asking for help and sustenance for the people who had suffered so deeply. As Griswold climbed into the van she held in her hand a four-inch shoot of maize. "I found it growing out of the mud," she said.

--Nan Cobbey is features editor for Episcopal Life, the national newspaper of the Episcopal Church.