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.