The sinkhole that swallowed families, changed one firefighter’s life forever

We drove to the location of the call through the pouring rain, which made it difficult to see anything. It felt like a monsoon. Once we got there, we heard voices alerting us to stop the car. We were headed straight for the sinkhole.

  • 1 year ago
  • February 21, 2023
7 min read
The sinkhole was much larger than expected. The rain formed a whirlpool at the bottom, trapping cars, and a second hole was later discovered. A mother and child lost their lives when their car fell into the hole. | Photo courtesy of the Guatemalan Volunteer Firefighters
Luis Samayoa graduated as a firefighter on June 9, 2016. He serves as an emergency medical technician and has worked at several companies in the department of Guatemala. He currently belongs to the permanent guard and is stationed in the ‘25‘ fire department company, based in Villa Nueva. He is also a first aid instructor, in charge of training personnel in companies for safety. He’s worked as a volunteer firefighter for eight years now.
During the winter of 2022 in Guatemala, the consistent periods of heavy rain caused many streets throughout the country to collapse due to flooding and poor maintenance.
In June 2022, the first sinkhole opened on the route to the Pacific, the jurisdiction of Villa Nueva. In September, a second sinkhole appeared, claiming the lives of members of the Mejía family. Mother Olga Emilia Choz Ulín (37) and Hellen Michelle Mejía Choz (14) died on the spot when their car fell into the hole.

VILLA NUEVA, Guatemala — One Saturday afternoon, while on duty as a volunteer firefighter, a sinkhole swallowed up cars and people in Villa Nueva, forty minutes from Guatemala City. When the distress call came in, we headed straight to the scene. We heard people screaming as dirt and asphalt rained down on us.

After nearly eight years as a volunteer firefighter, that scene five months ago at the Villa Nueva sinkhole remains with me. I think it will forever. As a little boy, every time I heard a siren ring outside my window, I dreamed of being a rescuer and saving people. I only considered the people in need and how I would help them. Never, did I imagine the job, which I love so much, would confront me with such a heartbreaking moment.

I believed I was prepared for anything

The cause of the sinkhole we encountered in September 2022 remains a mystery Some speculate it happened due to poor road management, while others believe it erupted as the result of tectonic plate movement. As one of the first responders on the scene, I for one, underestimated the size of it.

According to the Guatemalan Army engineers, that sinkhole opened to a depth the size of a five-story building. A shockingly abnormal incident, the case garnered vast coverage. Nothing like this happened before in our region. Two huge busy highways which people utilize every day suddenly collapsed into the ground. On the day of the accident, entire families left Villa Nueva, terrified by what happened and the possibility of further issues.

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On the day of the accident, I had enough valuable field experience as a volunteer firefighter, I felt confident to respond. I had been with company nearly eight years and went through extensive training. We learned to swim for rescue, explored ravines, and took part in volcano rescues. We challenged ourselves to go hard in training because we wanted to be ready for anything.

In case of emergencies, we also received medical training. I felt focused from the start, always looking for solutions quickly, while controlling my heart rate to stay calm. In dangerous situations, your survival instincts kick in. Learning to remain calm and focused helps in decision-making and saves lives. At times, I spent 12 hours on my knees, under rubble, responding to emergencies. No matter the weather conditions, we always pushed through. 

We heard screaming coming from underneath our feet

That particular Saturday afternoon in September 2022, while on duty, the rain started to pour down, harder than usual. We suddenly received a distress call for an overturned vehicle in Villa Nueva. Our team rushed to the scene, leaving our ropes and harnesses behind. We did not imagine we needed them for a vehicle accident. 

The rain made it difficult to see anything in our path, but we drove to the location of the call as quickly as we could. It felt like a monsoon swallowing us. Once we got to the scene, we heard voices alerting us to stop the car. Little did we know, we were headed straight for the sinkhole.

A view of the Villa Nueva sinkhole that happened in the summer of 2022 in Guatemala. | Photo courtesy of the Guatemalan Volunteer Firefighters

Having to stop abruptly, we lost control and hit the gate of the Villa Nueva square, jarring us in our seats. We leapt out of the car and headed towards the hole. We could hear people screaming for help. Pieces of asphalt and dirt fell on us as we walked. We spotted several people buried underneath the rubble. Unaware of the magnitude of the problem, we lacked the proper tools for rescue. We phoned the station and asked neighbors to bring ropes. My body filled with adrenaline and anxiety.

Father loses grip of his daughter’s hand as waters rushes in

When the extra volunteer fire units arrived, we rescued a woman and three men. Believing we saved everyone we could, we began to leave. At that moment, I received a call. A survivor at the hospital had been traveling with his wife and child when the accident happened. A rush of incoming water turned the sinkhole into a whirlpool. It broke the car’s windows, allowing him to exit, but his family remained trapped inside.

He begged me to find them. The sound of his voice broke my heart. The father described holding his daughter’s hand, but the water pressure made it impossible to grasp. I immediately alerted the officer on duty, and we gave the order to go back in and dig the remaining survivors out.

The search for the remaining victims lasted weeks. Only a dozen survivors made it out. | Photo courtesy of the Guatemalan Volunteer firefighters

Inside the tunnel, we started hearing noises, like waves hitting concrete. We approached the sinkhole slowly, which appeared to be growing in size the closer we got to it. So much rain poured down, it filled all the crevices. We discovered a second hole and were forced to evacuate. The idea of going back to tell that man his family may be lost paralyzed me. 

As the days continued, we received more calls from family members claiming their loved ones remained trapped in the sinkhole. We told them we would do everything possible to help. The rescue protocols suggest a 72-hour window to search for victims. This particular rescue lasted a week. The victims’ relative insisted on prolonging it for as long as possible.

After a week of searching, no one else could be found

We understood and respected the families’ wishes, so we continued until we could search no more. At times, this job feels so hard, especially when you cannot afford to get sentimental. We kept our strength up for the families and aided them any way we could. We took them to the command post, to speak to the mayor, and kept them informed during the entire process.

Eventually, so much time passed, we finally received instructions to stop.  We never found anyone else in the end, and I never recovered from seeing the pain of these families. 

Firefighters walking through the rubble of the sinkhole. | Photo courtesy of the Guatemalan Volunteer Firefighters

I carry those victims in my heart forever and I wish I could have done more. The sinkholes remain open to this day. The roads are closed, and little progress has been made to fix them While driving by, we see drainpipes and some machinery near the area.

According to the engineers from Villa Nueva, a major tectonic plate runs underneath the location, stretching underneath a large segment of the metro center. Though this incident affected me permanently, my love for what I do never wavered. I continue to serve as a firefighter now and will for as long as I can. I want to put everything I have into being there for others. 

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