Emergency crews clawed through tons of mud Monday in a desperate bid to rescue more than 100 people missing in a landslide in Colombia that has claimed at least 16 lives.
Hundreds of rescuers including police, emergency services, soldiers and local residents used their bare hands, shovels and pick-axes to break into the wall of mud after it buried or damaged at least 35 houses on Sunday in the hillsides above Medellin, following the worst downpours to hit the country in decades which have left nearly 200 dead and 1.5 million homeless.
"There were 123 people missing, and of those 123 we have recovered 16 bodies" as of early Monday, said Oscar Perez, mayor of Bello municipality where the tragedy occurred.
He said the disaster began when a hillside, waterlogged by weeks of historic rains, gave way above the neighborhood.
Another seven people were recovered alive on Sunday, and the rescue team had grown to more than 300 people, Perez said, but fears over the fate of the 107 still missing swelled and the scope of the tragedy unfolded as emergency personnel began pulling lifeless bodies from the mud's grip.
Red Cross operations deputy director Cesar Uruena said emergency personnel worked through the night after the mudslide struck Bello's La Gabriela neighborhood near Medellin, the country's second-largest city, some 245 kilometers (150 miles) northwest of the capital Bogota.
"We are working by hand. We are in the first 48 hours, the period in which all efforts are focused on saving lives," he told AFP.
Men and women wept as they climbed over the earth, rocks and uprooted trees that poured like an avalanche over the homes of their loved ones, many as they sat for Sunday lunch in this neighborhood outside Colombia's second largest city.
Some sat helpless and in solitude on the debris covering their home while armed soldiers and police observed from afar as sniffer dogs were brought in to help in the search for any survivors.
Rescuers in yellow suits and helmets and troops in camouflage combed over the mudslide and sought entryways into the mud, estimated at some 50,000 cubic meters (1.7 million cubic feet), according to disaster official John Freddy Rendon told reporters.
Many worked at the edges of the shifted mud and dirt, where hopes of live rescues were highest, digging through piles of splintered wood, corrugated roofs and broken brick walls.
Mayor Perez said manual emergency operations would continue through the day, keeping heavy earthmoving equipment at bay so rescuers could dig for survivors.
An initial count suggested there might be as many as 200 people missing in the disaster, which occurred at lunchtime when families traditionally have guests over, and many of the three-story homes were believed to be full.
But an overnight Red Cross census determined that fewer people were missing.
Many people fled the area fearing further landslides, with dozens spending the night outdoors covered with blankets, while others took refuge in a temporary shelter in a nearby community center.
Medellin lies in a valley and many poorer neighborhoods with precariously-built houses are stacked up the mountainsides where they are highly vulnerable to heavy weather.
President Juan Manuel Santos hurried home from a regional summit in Argentina to lead the response to the disaster, and was due to visit the scene later Monday.
His government was weighing a state of emergency hoping to free up more funds for the country's widespread weather and flood-related damage.
"This is going to cost a lot of money," Santos said Sunday, referring to overall recovery effort. "Unfortunately, this tragedy has just kept growing."
As of last week, the government estimated weather related damage at more than 300 million dollars.
Colombia has been lashed in recent weeks by heavy rains that have left at least 176 people dead and 225 injured, not including the latest mudslide, as well as 1.5 million people homeless nationwide.
And in neighboring Venezuela to the east, driving rains have triggered flooding and cave-ins that have killed 34 people over the past week, officials said.
The non-stop storms were being blamed on La Nina, a phenomenon in which cooler-than-normal water circulates in the Pacific Ocean around the equator.