- Associated Press - Friday, September 20, 2013

ACAPULCO, Mexico (AP) — Days usually start long before sunrise in La Pintada, where able-bodied men and the women without young children leave home before 6 a.m. to work the coffee fields around the tiny village deep in the rugged green mountains of southern Mexico.

But Monday was a holiday, and rain fell all day because of the tropical storm off the coast, so far more people than usual stayed home, napping under warm blankets or cooking for the Independence Day celebration in La Pintada’s little cobblestone square.

Families gossiped. Children played at their parents’ feet. Then, suddenly, the earth trembled.

For a split second everyone thought it was one of the region’s regular earthquakes. But then a tidal wave of dirt, rocks and trees exploded off the hill above the village, sweeping through the center of town, burying families in their homes and sweeping wooden houses into the bed of the swollen river that winds past La Pintada on its way to the Pacific.

“Everyone who could ran into the coffee fields. It smothered the homes and sent them into the river. Half the homes in town were smothered and buried,” said Marta Alvarez, a 22-year-old homemaker who was cooking with her 2-year-old son, two brothers and her parents when the landslide erupted.

Sixty-eight people in the village of about 800 remained missing early Friday, with most presumed dead, making La Pintada the scene of the single greatest tragedy in the twin paths of destruction wreaked by Tropical Storm Manuel and Hurricane Ingrid, which simultaneously pounded both of Mexico’s coasts over the weekend, spawning huge floods and landslides across hundreds of miles of coastal and inland areas.

Manuel later gained hurricane force and rolled into the northern state of Sinaloa on Thursday morning before weakening over land. By Thursday night it had degenerated into an area of low pressure over the western Sierra Madre mountains, the U.S. National Hurricane Center said.

The death toll from the weekend storms stood at 97 but was certain to rise since the figure doesn’t include the missing in La Pintada. Sinaloa authorities said a fisherman had drowned in choppy waters and a young man and a 5-year-old boy had disappeared in flooded canyons.

In La Pintada, emergency workers tried to evacuate the last survivors and dug through the rubble for bodies. Many of the roughly 400 surviving residents of the village several hours drive northwest of Acapulco were resting Thursday on foam mats on the floor of Acapulco’s convention center. Children napped and played as their parents tried to understand how dozens of the people they saw every day for years were suddenly gone from their lives.

Several entire families were wiped out by the landslide, which plowed almost directly through the center of La Pintada.

A handful of people lost everyone they loved, suddenly finding themselves the only living members of their families. As neighbors began the process of recovery Thursday, the sole survivors stared blankly into space, virtually unable to move, as if pinned in place by crushing grief.

Amelia Saldana, a 43-year-old single mother, wept furiously as she shared the names of those she lost: her twin boys, Yael and Osiel, age 5; her son Miguel Angel, 7, in his second year of primary school; her “muchacho,” Jorge Anivan, 17, and her elderly mother.

Saldana had gone down to the town’s main square for an Independence Day celebration, a rare break for the villagers who work until late afternoon in the coffee fields, returning home only to eat and sleep. Because it was raining, Saldana told her sons to stay home while she went down to the square to get some of the free hominy stew being given away.

She heard the landslide and saw it plow into her home. When she ran back to where her house once stood, it no longer existed.

“I tried to get back to my kids, but I couldn’t” Saldana said. “I feel so awful. I lost everything.”

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