It looks like smoke is rising from the hot ash which was spewed out by Guatemala’s Volcano of Fire – but it’s actually clouds of dust, hanging in the air every time a firefighter plants a spade in the ground.
More than a dozen are digging around a piece of twisted metal. It’s all that is left of one of their fire trucks.
Somewhere under the tonnes of volcanic ash are the bodies of two volunteer firefighters. They arrived as the volcano, also known as Fuego, was erupting.
They were with a group of local people watching the eruption from a bridge, without realising how much danger they were in. Hot gases and rock swept down the slope at such speed they were engulfed, and the bridge was demolished.
The once verdant slopes have been replaced by a massive brown scar which stretches from the top of the volcano as far as the eye can see.
I’m wearing a face mask and goggles for protection, as are all of those working so hard to find their colleagues. But when I remove the mask, there is no smell of sulphur as I had expected, just dusty smoke.
We’ve been allowed up close to see the work, but with a strict warning that we can only be there for five minutes, and to take heed of the ever-present danger of another eruption.
If we hear three blasts in a whistle, it means we should run back to our vehicle.
It’s desperately hard, unpleasant work without the prospect of finding any survivors.
Eventually, to a round of applause from firefighters who’ve been taking a much-needed break, an excavator arrives to help with the digging.
Scenes like this are repeated throughout the region, where up to 200 people are still missing. Several thousand are in temporary shelters in towns or villages which escaped the worst of the eruption.
In Alotenango, we see a human chain formed to pass supplies of food and water from trucks to a store room ready for distribution to the needy.
One of the co-ordinators from the Guatemalan disaster service Conred updates me on casualties from one village, San Miguel Los Lotes. David Ovalle tells me that nine people are dead, 18 are missing and 620 are now in shelters.
“All the people in the area are scared about the volcano,” he said. “The eruption is not normal; usually the eruptions and rivers of lava are from the opposite side.”
Next to a shrine to the dead, where candles have been lit and messages written, two dozen young children are sitting watching two performers act out a story from a book. There are occasional smiles and giggles. But mostly the children have a haunted look, having seen a real-life horror unfold before their eyes.
But nobody seems to want to leave the area, despite the danger. This is home, and the Guatemalans are hospitable people.
As we trudge away from the search for bodies, brushing away the dust from our clothes and cursing the dryness in our throats, a woman hands each of us a bag of chopped melon and pineapple.
She doesn’t want payment. Like everyone in the area, she just wants to help.
From – SkyNews