Image: Residents carry a coffin
Moises Castillo  /  AP
Residents carry a coffin containing the remains of a mudslide victim to be buried in Santa Maria Ixtahuacan, Guatemala, Sunday Sept. 5. Torrential rains from a tropical depression caused landslides that have killed at least 38 people in Guatemala.
updated 9/6/2010 4:17:24 PM ET 2010-09-06T20:17:24

Searchers on Monday pulled more bodies from a mud-covered highway where back-to-back landslides buried bus passengers and people trying to save them. Yet more mudslides helped raise Guatemala's official death toll to 44 after days of torrential rains.

Authorities said 24 people are confirmed dead and at least 16 are believed to be still buried beneath the debris in the village of Nahuala, where a first mudslide buried a bus and other vehicles, then a second one turned would-be rescuers into victims.

At least 20 others died over the weekend elsewhere as a tropical depression saturated the ground and set off more than a dozen landslides around the country, according to the national disaster agency. The most recent slide, on a highway in northern Guatemala, killed one person and injured 26 on Sunday.

In Nahuala, emergency crews and villagers rushed to the Inter-American highway on Saturday, picks and shovels in hand, after radio reports of the deadly slide — only to be swamped by the second cascade of rock and earth.

Search and rescue efforts were suspended Sunday for fear that the mountainside could give way yet again, but digging resumed Monday with heavy machinery and fewer workers, said Sergio Cabanas, a Civil Protection director.

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Of the 100 people originally searching for bodies and survivors, only 33 remained, all of them soldiers and firefighters, Cabanas said.

"And even they might not be able to recover the last of the bodies," Cabanas said. "It's very dangerous to have personnel there."

At least four bodies were pulled out Monday, said Mario Cruz, a firefighters' spokesman. Authorities initially said more than three dozen people were missing, but Cabanas said that estimate was lowered to 16 after further interviews with witnesses and relatives.

Local police officer Suagustino Pascual Tuy said there had been several landslides along the Inter-American highway in the last year, and authorities knew of the danger.

"Last year there was a landslide there, 15 days ago there was a landslide," he said. "But now a big one came."

President Alvaro Colom, who visited the area and declared Monday a national day of mourning, said Guatemala must improve its disaster prevention efforts. He said more geologists should study the terrain in the country's hillsides.

All told, there were 15 landslides at different spots along the Inter-American Highway — a section of the Pan-American Highway system — within in a 48-hour period, Communications Minister Guillermo Castillo said.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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