Image: View of landslide damage
Reuters
The hillside that slid down into part of Santa Maria Tlahuitoltepec, Mexico, is seen Tuesday.
msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 9/29/2010 2:18:32 PM ET 2010-09-29T18:18:32

Three adults and eight children were missing under a landslide in a poor Oaxacan mountain village on Wednesday, but the tragedy — in which no deaths have yet been confirmed — was a far cry from the first estimates of up to 1,000 dead and hundreds of homes buried.

Why the disparity? The sequence of events — starting with the landslide coming in darkness early Tuesday and the fact that it took rescuers 10 hours to get to Santa Maria Tlahuitoltepec — could explain the confusion.

But at least one official suggested locals had inflated the numbers.

    1. Castaway's parents thought they would never see him again

      The father of Pacific castaway Jose Salvador Alvarenga said he was told his long-lost son vanished on a fishing trip but he didn’t have the heart to break the news to his ailing wife.

    2. Scotland legalizes same-sex marriage
    3. Weapons deal strengthened Assad: US intel chief
    4. Outcry over the fate of Sochi's stray dogs
    5. Olympic construction leaves Sochi residents in the cold

The events started Tuesday at 3:40 a.m. with a loud noise shattering the darkness. It was still pitch black and raining hard when the town mayor called Oaxaca's governor, saying hundreds of people in some 300 homes appeared to have been buried.

The governor, Ulises Ruiz, went on TV soon after to say the death toll could be up to 1,000. Phone interviews later that morning with the mayor and another town official supported the contention of hundreds buried.

Civil protection authorities later reported seven people killed and at least 100 missing, but after outside rescuers finally reached the scene on Tuesday afternoon, Ruiz put casualties at four dead and 12 missing.

Later, officials said that even the deaths were not confirmed and only three homes had been completely buried. Two others were partially buried and 35 others damaged. In addition, some 200 residents were evacuated from the area.

The dramatic drop in numbers was welcome news after a day of dire predictions in an area battered by the remnants of a hurricane one week followed by a tropical storm the next.

Ruiz, at a news conference Tuesday night, attributed the disparity to the early morning chaos. "Everything was confusion and we didn't know for certain what had happened," he said.

Video: Crews still digging (on this page)

'Overpopulation' of rescuers
Oaxaca's fire and rescue chief, Manuel Maza Sanchez, was critical of town officials, telling reporters that they had magnified the disaster, which eventually led to another problem: an "overpopulation" of several hundred rescuers whose presence has actually made it harder to dig out and endangered more lives because of the continued rains.

Town officials might even be taken to court, Sanchez was quoted in the daily El Universal as saying, since their reports drew rescue resources away from dozens of other weather dangers in Oaxaca on Tuesday.

The most dramatic accounts came Tuesday morning from town official Donato Vargas, who spoke via satellite phone to a few news outlets. He cited homes packed with sleeping families being dragged some 1,300 feet down the hillside along with cars, livestock and light poles.

"We have been using a backhoe but there is a lot of mud. We can't even see the homes, we can't hear shouts, we can't hear anything," Vargas said at the time. "We were left without electricity, without telephone and we couldn't help them."

It was not clear why Vargas might have exaggerated, and El Universal said state officials were trying to locate him.

His fear might have been compounded by the fact that the area had seen a smaller landslide two weeks earlier. Moreover, residents on Tuesday said the town had been cut off by rockslides for the last week.

  1. Only on NBCNews.com
    1. OWN via Getty Images
      From belief to betrayal: How America fell for Armstrong
    2. pool via Reuters file
      US to Syria neighbors: Be ready to act on WMDs
    3. China: One-child policy is here to stay
    4. NRA: Practice Range
      New 'Practice Range' shooter game says it’s from NRA
    5. 'Gifted' priest indicted in crystal meth case
    6. AFP - Getty Images
      China's state media admits to air pollution crisis
    7. AFP - Getty Images
      French to send 1,000 more troops to Mali

As for the search, dozens of state police and firefighters joined locals Wednesday in digging for victims and clearing out debris.

Before the landslide hit, Oaxaca had seen three days straight of intense rain. The state government warned residents south of the city of Oaxaca of flooding from overflowing rivers and opened shelters in other parts of the state.

Santa Maria Tlahuitoltepec, population around 9,000, is a community high in the Sierra Norte mountains known for maintaining its indigenous culture, especially its music. Residents speak the native language, Mixe, and its youth orchestra plays throughout Mexico.

Huge swaths of riverside communities in southern Mexico were still under water Tuesday — due to flooding exacerbated by the passage of Hurricane Karl and Tropical Storm Matthew. Before Tuesday's landslides, at least 15 deaths in Mexico were blamed on the bad weather.

Matthew also claimed lives in neighboring Honduras, where authorities said four people, including a child, drowned in swollen rivers and creeks.

30 die in Colombia landslide
In Colombia, about 30 people were killed Monday by a landslide northwest of Bogota, the capital. Many were changing from one bus to another because a mountain road was blocked, but the residents of five houses also were buried, rescue officials said.

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos visited the scene Tuesday between the towns of Giraldo and Canasgordas in Antioquia state, northwest of Bogota. "The situation is very difficult," he told reporters as rescue teams with sniffer dogs probed tons of earth.

Video: Moment of Colombia landslide captured on video (on this page)

Witnesses described a roar as first rocks and then earth swept over the road Monday afternoon. Amateur video shows the slide bearing down and scouring away the houses.

Heavy rains in recent weeks across Colombia have triggered flooding that has claimed at least 74 lives.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Video: Crews still digging

Discuss:

Discussion comments

,