In volcano's wake, a Guatemalan town became a cemetery

SAN MIGUEL LOS LOTES, Guatemala, June 11 (Reuters) - There was no time to eat. Sunday family lunches were interrupted, the food left on the table. Children abandoned toys, and clothes still hung on lines in backyards. Animals died petrified.

Guatemalan authorities reacted slowly to signs of the Fuego volcano's impending eruption on June 3, contributing to one of the most tragic natural disasters in recent Guatemalan history.

The volcano rumbled to life early that Sunday. By midday, it was spewing ash in smoking columns miles high that then fell, dusting a wide swath of the Central American country.

But with the mountain's rumbles and the first ash showers, many villagers made a fatal bet to stay put, gambling that luck that had protected them for decades would hold once again.

In the afternoon things took a turn for the worse. Tons of ash propelled by scalding, toxic gases poured down Fuego's flanks. These "pyroclastic flows" hit much faster, more lethal speeds than lava, dragging trees and giant rocks down onto villages in their path.

By the time most families in the worst-hit hamlets of El Rodeo and San Miguel de Los Lotes knew what was happening, they only had time to run, if that.

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Volcano turns Guatemalan town into a cemetery
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Volcano turns Guatemalan town into a cemetery
A dog walks past trees covered with ash after the eruption of the Fuego volcano in San Miguel Los Lotes in Escuintla, Guatemala, June 8, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Jasso SEARCH "VOLCANO DETAILS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Onions are seen at a house affected by the eruption of the Fuego volcano at San Miguel Los Lotes in Escuintla, Guatemala, June 8, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Jasso SEARCH "VOLCANO DETAILS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
A refrigerator lies inside a kitchen of a house affected by the eruption of the Fuego volcano at San Miguel Los Lotes in Escuintla, Guatemala, June 8, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Jasso SEARCH "VOLCANO DETAILS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
A kitchen of a house is covered in ash after the eruption of the Fuego volcano at San Miguel Los Lotes in Escuintla, Guatemala, June 8, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Jasso SEARCH "VOLCANO DETAILS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
A toy covered with ash lies inside a house affected by the eruption of the Fuego volcano at San Miguel Los Lotes in Escuintla, Guatemala, June 7, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Jasso SEARCH "VOLCANO DETAILS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Kitchen shelves are covered with ash after the eruption of the Fuego volcano at San Miguel Los Lotes in Escuintla, Guatemala, June 6, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Jasso SEARCH "VOLCANO DETAILS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
A window of a house is covered with ash after the eruption of the Fuego volcano at San Miguel Los Lotes in Escuintla, Guatemala, June 8, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Jasso SEARCH "VOLCANO DETAILS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
A window of a house is covered with ash after the eruption of the Fuego volcano at San Miguel Los Lotes in Escuintla, Guatemala, June 8, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Jasso SEARCH "VOLCANO DETAILS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
A radio covered with ash is seen after the eruption of the Fuego volcano at San Miguel Los Lotes in Escuintla, Guatemala, June 8, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Jasso SEARCH "VOLCANO DETAILS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Car radios are covered in ash after the eruption of the Fuego volcano at San Miguel Los Lotes in Escuintla, Guatemala, June 8, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Jasso SEARCH "VOLCANO DETAILS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
A terrace of a house is covered with ash after the eruption of the Fuego volcano at San Miguel Los Lotes in Escuintla, Guatemala, June 6, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Jasso SEARCH "VOLCANO DETAILS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
A hammock covered with ash hangs afters the eruption of the Fuego volcano in San Miguel Los Lotes in Escuintla, Guatemala, June 6, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Jasso SEARCH "VOLCANO DETAILS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Toys covered with ash lie on top of a roof of a house affected by the eruption of the Fuego volcano at San Miguel Los Lotes in Escuintla, Guatemala, June 8, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Jasso SEARCH "VOLCANO DETAILS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
A bicycle covered with ash lies outside a house affected by the eruption of the Fuego volcano at San Miguel Los Lotes in Escuintla, Guatemala, June 6, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Jasso SEARCH "VOLCANO DETAILS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Banana leafs covered with ash are seen in the area affected by the eruption of the Fuego volcano at San Miguel Los Lotes in Escuintla, Guatemala, June 8, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Jasso SEARCH "VOLCANO DETAILS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
A house covered with ash is seen after the eruption of the Fuego volcano in San Miguel Los Lotes in Escuintla, Guatemala, June 6, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Jasso SEARCH "VOLCANO DETAILS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
A drum covered with ash lies outside a house affected by the eruption of the Fuego volcano at San Miguel Los Lotes in Escuintla, Guatemala, June 6, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Jasso SEARCH "VOLCANO DETAILS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
A guitar is seen on top of a roof of a house affected by the eruption of the Fuego volcano at San Miguel Los Lotes in Escuintla, Guatemala, June 8, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Jasso SEARCH "VOLCANO DETAILS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Volcanic rocks are spread around an area that got buried after the eruption of the Fuego volcano at San Miguel Los Lotes in Escuintla, Guatemala, June 6, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Jasso SEARCH "VOLCANO DETAILS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
A dead parakeet is seen outside a house affected by the eruption of the Fuego volcano at San Miguel Los Lotes in Escuintla, Guatemala, June 6, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Jasso SEARCH "VOLCANO DETAILS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
A burned tree covered with ash stands in an area affected by the eruption of the Fuego volcano at San Miguel Los Lotes in Escuintla, Guatemala, June 6, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Jasso SEARCH "VOLCANO DETAILS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Books and a toy lie on the ground at a house affected by the eruption of the Fuego volcano in San Miguel Los Lotes in Escuintla, Guatemala, June 8, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Jasso SEARCH "VOLCANO DETAILS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Wood covered with ash is seen after the eruption of the Fuego volcano at San Miguel Los Lotes in Escuintla, Guatemala, June 8, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Jasso SEARCH "VOLCANO DETAILS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
A car sunk in ash is seen in an area affected by the eruption of the Fuego volcano at San Miguel Los Lotes in Escuintla, Guatemala, June 7, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Jasso SEARCH "VOLCANO DETAILS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Pages of a burned Bible are seen in an area affected by the eruption of the Fuego volcano in San Miguel Los Lotes in Escuintla, Guatemala, June 8, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Jasso SEARCH "VOLCANO DETAILS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
A car is seen covered in ash after the eruption of the Fuego volcano at San Miguel Los Lotes in Escuintla, Guatemala, June 10, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Jasso SEARCH "VOLCANO DETAILS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Wall decorations covered with ash hang in a house affected by the eruption of the Fuego volcano at San Miguel Los Lotes in Escuintla, Guatemala, June 8, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Jasso SEARCH "VOLCANO DETAILS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
A blanket lies on a chair inside a house affected by the eruption of the Fuego volcano at San Miguel Los Lotes in Escuintla, Guatemala, June 10, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Jasso SEARCH "VOLCANO DETAILS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Clothes covered with ash hang on washing lines outside a house affected by the eruption of the Fuego volcano at San Miguel Los Lotes in Escuintla, Guatemala, June 7, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Jasso SEARCH "VOLCANO DETAILS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
A bathroom covered with ash is seen inside a house affected by the eruption of the Fuego volcano at San Miguel Los Lotes in Escuintla, Guatemala, June 7, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Jasso SEARCH "VOLCANO DETAILS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
A shoe covered with ash lies inside a house affected by the eruption of the Fuego volcano at San Miguel Los Lotes in Escuintla, Guatemala, June 7, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Jasso SEARCH "VOLCANO DETAILS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Toothbrushes are seen in a house affected by the eruption of the Fuego volcano at San Miguel Los Lotes in Escuintla, Guatemala, June 8, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Jasso SEARCH "VOLCANO DETAILS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
A dead cow is seen in an area affected by the eruption of the Fuego volcano at San Miguel Los Lotes in Escuintla, Guatemala, June 6, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Jasso SEARCH "VOLCANO DETAILS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
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"My family was having lunch, they left the plates of food and stopped eating and fled," said Pedro Gomez, a 45-year-old welder. "They took nothing but their clothes on their backs."

Now, everything in the previously lush, bright green landscape is coated in thick layers of sepia-colored volcanic ash, giving the place the eerie feeling of a ghost ship. Where once there was life, there is heat, dust and a lingering smell of sulfur.

In one home, the pages of a Bible are singed. Outside, cattle lay dead. A bass drum lay abandoned. In kitchens, there was food in pots ready to be served.

At least 110 people have died and close to 200 are thought buried under the rubble in the hamlet on the fertile lower slopes of the volcano. Fuego - Spanish for "fire" - rises between the regions of Sacatepequez, Escuintla and Chimaltenango about 30 miles (50 km) from Guatemala City, the nation's capital.

Rescuers searching for bodies walked on the roofs of houses as if they were floors, digging down into buildings where they have found only corpses of those who stayed behind. Only a few dogs, chickens, rabbits and cats survived.

As the burning volcanic matter rushed at them, some escaped on foot, others by car.

"I took out the pickup truck and escaped with a lot of neighbors when we saw the smoke," said Alejandro Velasquez, 46, a farmer.

Others with still less time ran through bushes and leaped across barbed wire and wooden fences to reach the main road of the town of Escuintla, near Los Lotes.

Many lost 10 to 50 relatives each, descendents of intertwining generations of a small families who settled in Los Lotes more than 40 years ago. They refuse to give up hope of finding relatives - or at least their remains.

"My entire family is missing," said Jose Ascon. The young man argued with police who had temporarily halted rescue efforts after more flows from the eruption.

"I would give my life to find my family."

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