Image: Corpse removed from landslide area
Yuri Cortez  /  AFP - Getty Images
Residents of San Antonio de Escazu, a town west of San Jose, Costa Rica, carry a corpse dug out from a landslide overnight.
msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 11/4/2010 6:16:27 PM ET 2010-11-04T22:16:27

A rain-sodden hillside collapsed on homes in a suburb of Costa Rica's capital, killing at least 20 people and leaving several dozen missing, officials said Thursday as landslides and flooding across the nation led to a "red alert" declaration.

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Dozens of rescuers, some using dogs, were searching for survivors as an undetermined number of people remain missing. But so far they have found only corpses, including the body of a child, according to Hector Blanco, a Red Cross spokesman. They have not yet been identified.

President Laura Chinchilla said at least 20 bodies had been pulled out the debris by mid-afternoon, including four children.

Firefighter Javier Castro said a dozen or so residents are thought to be missing.

The landslide in San Antonio de Escazu followed two days of heavy rains that flooded a river near the town and sent nearly 600 people to shelters in nearby San Jose.

The area received 6.3 inches of rain in just two hours Wednesday, according to Costa Rica's Meteorological Institute.

Rodrigo Araya, born and raised in San Antonio de Escazu, about 10 miles from San Jose, said he awoke to what sounded like a plane landing.

"You could hear people asking for help but could not see anything," said Araya.

Image: Houses damaged by landslide
Juan Carlos Ulate  /  Reuters
The landslide Tuesday San Antonio de Escazu, Costa Rica, covered these homes in mud.

"I know 20 families lived there together. Some were very poor and had settled near the banks of the river," said Flory Quintero, who lives nearby. "When it happened, it sounded like a turbine."

The outlook Thursday was bleak: the road into town was covered with stones and branches swept by the currents, Blanco said. There were piles of boulders 10 feet high.

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Relatives arrived with shovels to help but most were turned away because of the danger of another landslide.

The heavy rain softened portions of the Pico Blanco mountain, popular with hikers and rock climbers, causing the landslide.

The area is also known for mansions owned by foreigners attracted by its walking trails and wooded areas.

The torrential rains this week also caused the breach of a dam in Parrita, close to the Pacific coast.

At least nine bridges have collapsed across the country, and neighboring countries were asked for aircraft to help reach some of the 65 communities impacted by the storm.

Some 1,500 Costa Ricans were in shelters, schools were closed across the country, and many roads were flooded or blocked by landslides.

The rains were forecast to continue into Friday.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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