SAN MARCOS, Guatemala – A 7.4-magnitude earthquake rocked Guatemala on Wednesday, killing at least 48 people in two states as it toppled thick adobe walls, shook huge landslides down onto highways, and sent terrified villagers streaming into the streets of this idyllic mountain town near the border with Mexico. One hundred people were missing, and hundreds were injured.
The quake, which hit at 10:35 a.m. in the midst of the workday, caused terror over an unusually wide area, with damage reported in all but one of Guatemala’s 22 states and shaking felt as far away as Mexico City, 600 miles to the northwest.
President Otto Perez Molina said at a news conference that 40 people died in the state of San Marcos and eight more were killed in the neighboring state of Quetzaltenango.
San Marcos, where more than 30 homes collapsed, bore the brunt of the temblor’s fury.
More than 300 people, including firefighters, policemen and villagers, tried to dig through a half ton of sand at a quarry in the commercial center of town in a desperate attempt to rescue seven people believed buried alive. Among those under the sand was a 6-year-old boy who had accompanied his grandfather to work.
“I want to see Giovanni! I want to see Giovanni!” the boy’s mother, 42-year-old Francisca Ramirez, frantically cried. “He’s not dead. Get him out.” She said the boy’s father had emigrated to the U.S. and there was no way to reach him.
Perez flew to San Marcos to view the damage in this lush mountainous region of 50,000 indigenous farmers and ranchers, many belonging to the Mam ethnic group.
“One thing is to hear about what happened and another thing entirely is to see it,” Perez told the Associated Press. “As a Guatemalan I feel sad … to see mothers crying for their lost children.”
The president said the government would pay for the funerals of all victims in the impoverished region.
The quake, which was 20 miles deep, was centered 15 miles off the coastal town of Champerico and 100 miles southwest of Guatemala City. It was the strongest earthquake to hit Guatemala since a 1976 temblor that killed 23,000.
Officials said most of 100 missing were from San Marcos. The mainly indigenous inhabitants farm corn and herd cattle, mostly for their own survival.
Hospital officials in San Marcos said they had received 150 injured.
“I’ve been in Guatemala for almost two years and I am used to earthquakes. This was a lot more severe, a lot more shaky,” said Peace Corps volunteer Adam Baker, 27, of Carmel, Indiana, who tweeted a picture of a small landslide behind his house in the nearby state of Quetzaltenango. “Things fell in my kitchen.”
Perez said more than 2,000 soldiers were deployed from a base in San Marcos to help with the disaster. A plane had already made two trips to carry relief teams to the area.