150 Feared Dead in Puerto Rico Mud Slide

From Times Wire Services

An avalanche of mud swept away a hillside community before dawn Monday in southern Puerto Rico, burying at least 150 people as they slept, authorities said. Most were feared to have died in their crushed houses.

Police said 275 houses were destroyed in the landslide on a hill in the Mameyes Portones area.

Puerto Rico Gov. Rafael Hernandez Colon declared a state of emergency late Monday and activated the National Guard. "It is necessary to protect life and property in this time of extreme concern," he said.

"The possibilities of rescuing people alive from the houses buried in Mameyes are extremely unlikely," Hernandez Colon said. "That type of soil does not allow air pockets like those that occur when concrete collapses."

There were 47 bodies at the regional morgue by nightfall. Police said there were other bodies that would be kept in refrigerated vans until roads can be cleared to bring them in.

Community of Shacks

Mameyes is one of several hillside communities of wood-and-tin shacks, some built on stilts, in this industrial city of 190,000 people.

Dozens of bridges were washed out, most major highways were flooded, hundreds of people were left homeless and telephone service was disrupted over much of the island.

Dennis Henize, of the National Weather Service in Coral Gables, Fla., said there was a definite potential for the weather system to develop into a tropical storm as it heads toward South Florida today.

Three Puerto Rican police officers drowned when their car plunged into a flooded ditch near the southern city of Coamo, police said.

Another 12 persons drowned in a shantytown between Tuque Beach on the Caribbean Sea and the Jewel River, which flooded in the early morning, said Edgardo Delgado, southern region district attorney.

"It was horrible. The water came through and it took my father, my mother, my four brothers and my niece," said a sobbing Jose Santiago, a boy in his teens.

Lost Boy in Flood

Belen Collazo said he had tried to carry his three small children to safety when the waters churned through their tiny home.

"I dropped one of them and he disappeared. I couldn't get him," said Collazo. He said his 7-year-old son, Julio Angel, had drowned.

Highways--including much of the island's main turnpike--connecting Puerto Rico's Caribbean coast with San Juan, on the northern Atlantic coast, were impassable. Entire towns were isolated and 32,000 telephones on the island of 3.2 million people were put out of service, the telephone company reported.

The National Weather Service said the tropical front, which began moving slowly across the 100-mile-long island on Friday, dumped as much as seven inches of rain within 10 hours early Monday in some southern and central areas. The weather service issued a flash-flood warning for the western tip, and said rain would continue there through today.

Thousands Flee Homes

Civil defense officials said more than 2,000 people were evacuated from their homes, and 15 persons were hospitalized for flood-related injuries.

The U.S. Coast Guard called in off-duty personnel and began flying rescue missions at 2 a.m. with its two Puerto Rico-based helicopters, spokesman Steve Eddy said. He said they participated in at least nine rescues, including one in which 16 persons on a bluff on the island's western tip were lifted to safety just before it was flooded.

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