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Guatemala ramps up search for missing as death toll rises

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Guatemala ramps up search for missing as death toll rises

Image: Guatemala Volcano
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Annie Rose Ramos
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In El Rodeo, one of the hardest hit towns surrounding Guatemala's Volcan de Fuego, or Volcano of Fire, rescue missions took on a new sense of urgency Wednesday. After Tuesday's eruption, the volcano's second in one week, families feared authorities would not return to the villages to search for bodies. However, the threat of more eruptions urged rescue crews back to towns like El Rodeo for a final push to find the missing.

Twenty-four bodies were recovered Wednesday, according to Guatemala's National Forensic Sciences Institute, bringing the death toll to 99 killed since the volcano's first eruption on Sunday. Authorities expect the death toll to rise, as nearly 200 remain missing.

In El Rodeo, a team of firefighters worked tirelessly, digging through smoldering ash and rocks, in order to reach the roof of a house.

Body remains inside the blanket - first responders say the majority of what they\'ve been able to salvage has been bones.
Body remains inside the blanket - first responders say the majority of what they\'ve been able to salvage has been bones.Annie Rose Ramos

The men used shovels and pickaxes to dig down through the debris, coughing as their eyes watered and their bodies shrouded in clouds of ash. After a few minutes, the firefighters' captain blew a whistle and a new team came to relieve the rescue workers.

Sitting quietly beside the crews was 18-year-old Jose Roldan. The house the firefighters were trying to reach belonged to his pregnant cousin and her husband, both of whom have been missing since Sunday's eruption. His cousin was due to give birth this week.

This is Jose. He found these stray dogs while searching for his cousin who lives in the town of El Rodeo, Guatemala for his cousin who was 9mo pregnant and due this week - same week as the Volcan De Fuego eruptions...his search continues.
This is Jose. He found these stray dogs while searching for his cousin who lives in the town of El Rodeo, Guatemala for his cousin who was 9mo pregnant and due this week - same week as the Volcan De Fuego eruptions...his search continues.Annie Rose Ramos

Roldan, who lives in the neighboring town of Escuintla, was losing hope, as firefighters struggled for hours attempting to pry the roof off his cousin's house.

Nearly 4,000 people are taking refuge in shelters after losing their homes, according to Guatemala's national disaster agency, CONRED.

El Rodeo resident Hugo Lopez lost his home and is still searching for 46 of his family members who remain missing.

"I don't know where they are…I looked in the hospitals, the morgue and there are no signs of any of them," he said sobbing.

Wednesday was the first time Lopez had returned to his hometown since Sunday's deadly eruption. He stood in disbelief and repeated, "there's nothing here, there's nothing here."

Further up the mountain, in the same town, rescue workers continued to dig. Bulldozers pulled ashes into small piles for rescue crews to sift through.

At one point, a firefighter raised his hands, cupping the remains of a child's skull and gently handed it to another worker who wrapped it in a small blanket and reverently laid it on the ground.

Eventually, the remains would be brought down the mountain and taken to a morgue in the nearby town of Escuintla.

More bodies found today in the town of El Rodeo, Guatemala - one of the hardest hit towns following this weeks eruptions as the death toll rises.
More bodies found today in the town of El Rodeo, Guatemala - one of the hardest hit towns following this weeks eruptions as the death toll rises.Annie Rose Ramos

Rescue workers in El Rodeo only found four bodies Wednesday, three women and one young girl.

For the many whose family members are still missing, there is nothing to do but wait. Women from nearby indigenous communities hand out tamales and water, a small offering for those anxiously awaiting rescuers to find any sign of their loved ones.

Survivors look up at the volcano, once their home, now a ghost town.