Spitting into the sinkhole
It’s not the first sinkhole the size of an entire block in Guatemala City.
I had covered an even bigger one in 2007. Two seemingly bottomless, perfectly round holes, swallowed up an intersection and buildings, and in one case a family eating dinner at their dinner table. They both happened at night, both in the rain. On May 29, 2010 I was transmitting late night pictures from the last two sleepless days, covering a volcanic eruption that blanketed the city and country with a cloud of black sand-like ash. Then came Agatha, the first tropical storm of the season, which pounded Guatemala with so much rain that hillsides collapsed on villages and overflowing rivers washed houses away. More than 150 people are counted as dead so far, but they are still searching, digging through the mud to find more.
The night the hole was created, it was still raining heavily. We kept the news blaring on the radio. “A giant hole has opened up in Ciudad Nueva!” Again? This time it was closer to my house — less than 2 miles according to the city map. I jumped on the back of my wet motorbike. It would be tough to stay dry. I was there quickly but the police line was already up.
Struggling under the weight of the cameras, tangled with duct-taped plastic bags, a backpack with a laptop in it — all covered with a heavy rain poncho — I ducked under the yellow emergency tape. Standing about 100 meters from the hole, I could tell from the look on the ranking police officer’s face I wasn’t getting anywhere near that thing tonight. I couldn’t even see it. But, what I couldn’t see, I could hear. A great rumbling sound followed by a crash. The sides were crumbling. The hole was unstable and I would be allowed no closer until it settled. Neighbors and evacuees huddled under their umbrellas in the rain. Their faces full of astonishment and worry.
By the time I finished transmitting images the clock read almost 5:30am. I got back on my motorbike, met up with the Reuters video team and we were off to get early morning pics of the hole in the sunlight. No sleep. We could see it this time. It was huge. The police let us cross the line just enough to talk with a few weary-eyed, pajama-clad residents standing in their door frame about 50 meters from the edge. They looked comfortable enough to be standing at that distance, but still had a look of confusion and fear from the night before on their faces as we approached. I was 50 meters from the hole and it looked like a less than impressive sliver through my lens. I would have to get closer, much closer, and higher.
The sinkholes in Guatemala are caused by collapsed drainage pipes. The poor, central American country cannot afford to fix the old and crumbling infrastructures so where the pipes are broken, water seeps into the ground until it gets soggy and unstable ove rtime. A huge underground cavern forms with the sides continuously collapsing. When a storm like Agatha hits, it puts more pressure on the drainage system until everything above the hole — concrete, apartment buildings, people — disappears down into it.
They can fill it in, and eventually will. The 2007 sinkhole was filled with a mixture of mud and a little concrete. It was then sealed. Now there are new buildings on top. But there will undoubtedly be more sinkholes. The underground tube that collapsed on Saturday is connected to the same drainage pipe that opened up three years ago, just further down the line.
I would return to the hole but for now I needed to worry about the rains. Tropical Storm Agatha had been pouring constant rain for 24 hours over most of the country. There were landslides. The radio reported 4 dead, then 8, 12, ….34 dead… and there would be more. I headed to Amatitlan, 16 miles outside the city, where a mudslide had been confirmed. Downed bridges, flooded, mud-soaked streets, broken houses, missing relatives, shattered hearts. People wandered through the disaster area, up and over, the huge boulders that now littered the very spot where these families used to live. Those who were fortunate enough to recover a few pieces of furniture, carefully arranged their bed, the dresser, the kitchen table and some of the chair, placing them where they would have been had their house actually survived the slide.
The next day the rain had stopped, the sun was hot and the mud began to dry. The people in Amatitlan were starting to use shovels and buckets to recover what they had lost. People still wandered around, scavenging for what they could at the site of the landslide. Neighbors who lost their flimsy tin and wood houses walked between the stronger, newer block houses that stood their ground when the mud roared passed, pushing the giant boulders at highway speeds. They greet each other and advise people to move down to where the food and aid is being distributed. I worked until late sending, editing and archiving with little sleep. Tomorrow, I’ll get a picture of that hole I told myself.
I got there early, but it was still being blocked and they prevented me from getting any closer than the tape cordon. It took a lot of talking to get closer and closer. Finally, a handyman working behind a church allowed me to get up on some scaffolding. I was maybe 20 meters from the hole and up high. Then I saw it. The roof of the building I was on was connected to the building right on the corner, just above the hole. The sidewalk out front even touched the hole. Leaving most of my cameras behind, I jumped over the wall and approached the side of the building. I could almost see the entire rim of the sinkhole. When I was 2 meters from it, I took one frame before the police started waving at me to get down. “Sssshhht…pssttt”… it was time to go.
The next day I knew I could get even closer. It was safe to walk up to take a few snaps and get out of there. I heard the engineers talking as they drew pictures on the ground with their fingers in the black sand left by the volcano eruption. I watched an electric company’s technician document the hole with a small digital camera from 5 meters. But how close would I get? As I stood 20 meters away just waiting, a lone soldier wearing camouflage, his weapon slung over his shoulder, walked comfortably over to the hole’s edge. The soldier bent forward and looked over, there was nothing to stop him! He made a face, turned and slowly walked away, wow! If he can do it – so can I!
I asked permission from the ranking official. “Just do it quick,” he said. I walked slowly to the store’s door and stood on the steps and peered over. I was close, but I couldn’t see the bottom, only the crumbling far-sided dirt wall 40 meters down. There was a house dangling on the edge, pipes sticking out like pieces of hay. The stairway that once lead to the building that days earlier disappeared in the middle of the night, taking a security guard with it into the rainy abyss. I inched closer, noticing a lone piece of graffiti carved into the concrete just at the edge, centimeters from the bottomless pit.
I peered over, I could see the dark, pitch-black circle. It was so black that it appeared to go on forever. I felt a sudden rush of adrenaline. I had an urge, it was uncontainable. I took the last picture, took one last look and then spat into the void. I couldn’t see it fall more than a few feet, but as I turned and walked away, the thrill stayed with me. I had gotten as close as could be.
I had sent 104 pictures, contributed to four news stories and worked until 4:13 in the morning. One week to the day from the volcano’s eruption. Another crazy week in Guatemala.