As Acapulco slept, rain began to fall high above the five-star hotels, soaking steep hillsides. Water joined water, mud joined mud, and a lethal torrent took shape.
Boulders barreled down a long, dry riverbed toward crowded settlements. In an instant, a river was reborn, dragging hundreds of flimsy shacks away, burying concrete homes, and sweeping dozens of lives toward the sea.
The river began forming in Pancho Villa Canyon, high on the hills above Acapulco’s crescent bay. The latest settlers had arrived only two years ago, their tarpaper huts clinging to the canyon’s steep slopes.
Now the homes and many who lived in them are gone, swept away by the rains after Hurricane Pauline raked these hills before dawn Thursday, sending tons of mud and mansized boulders, beds and the people in them, and cars and utility poles tumbling down.
Leaving everything behind, the Ramirez family raced to a hilltop and waited out the storm for eight hours in an open-air shack, listening to the rumble of boulders tumbling, and the cries for help below.
With little official warning, thousands of residents were ill-prepared for the rebirth of the Camarones River, a dry gulch that for years had been built upon before Pauline dumped 16 inches of rain.
Decades ago, the city had paved over the dry riverbed close to the coast and settlements began climbing the hills.
Eight residents of the upper canyon didn’t make it out, the Ramirez family said. Their bodies were swept downhill toward a housing project, where soldiers dug in thick brown mud for more victims Saturday.
Canyon road gone
As if unleashing years of pent-up fury, the torrent raged on, smashing apart a primary school and obliterating all traces of the road that once wound for five miles down this canyon. A gloomy fog descended, rising only at daybreak to a canyon of carnage.
In the crowded Palmas del Sol neighborhood, sleeping people were caught unaware. A 50-yard-wide bridge was washed away, as was the modest home of a woman known to her neighbors as La Guera. A neighbor, Rafael Santamaria, said her body was later found in the bay; her son Ismael was still missing.
“We heard people being dragged down the river screaming, and we couldn’t do a thing,” said his daughter, Francisca Alvarez, 30.
Next, Santamaria said, there was a miracle: A boulder and a giant tree trunk wedged against the two-story house, forming a dike of neck-deep mud that piled up five cars, power cables and rocks.
It spared their lives.
Jumped roof to roof
In the Progreso neighborhood, halfway down the hill, 20-year-old Hugo Vicente Baena awoke at 5 a.m. The walls were shaking, and he heard a roar. He tried to remember if he was drunk.
Still groggy, he stepped out of bed in his underwear and wondered about the water rising around his feet. He splashed upstairs to where his mother lives, and from her balcony surveyed the gully below.
A gully no longer. It was a raging, 8-foot-deep torrent of mud, filled with boulders that crashed against the wall of his room. “I saw eight cars being swept down as if they were toys.”
He woke his mother and two sisters and the family huddled together, watching as the walls of Baena’s room shook and then collapsed, allowing the river to wash into the first floor below.
It was time to flee. Jumping from roof to roof, they made their way to higher ground, abandoning their house to the river.
Cars bang against house
Downstream, a block from the beach, 67-year-old Julio Garcia Bello had been awake since 4 a.m. His house had begun to shake and he took his wife, mother-in-law, two daughters and their families across a patio to a neighboring house where his two sons lived.
Soon the water had engulfed the first floor of the two-story building. Four cars in the courtyard were banging against his house. “It felt like the end of the world.”
They ran to higher ground.
Garcia Bello returned Saturday to see how their homes had fared.
“You work your whole life to get things together and in a moment you’re left without anything,” he said. “It’s terrible that from one night to the next morning you can lose everything.”
He paused again, then looked at his son.
“I guess we have some work to do,” he said.