Within days of the eruption of the Fuego Volcano on June 3rd in the Guatemalan departments of Sacatepéquez, Chimaltenango, and Escuintla, the armed forces of partner nations took actions to lend support to the Guatemalan government. The objective: transport a dozen injured in need of intensive and specialized care.
Aircraft from the U.S. Air Force and Mexican Department of the Navy took off from La Aurora International Airport in Guatemala City between June 6th-10th carrying children and adults suffering from serious burns, some in nearly 80 percent of their bodies. The victims are receiving the needed care at their rehabilitation centers of destination.
“We are very pleased and grateful for the show of support received from the majority of the region’s countries”, Sergio Cabañas, secretary general of the Guatemalan National Coordination System for Disaster Reduction (CONRED, in Spanish), told Diálogo. “The help we received after the tragedy was an enormous gesture of love for those who lost everything.”
Transfer to Texas
On June 6th, a U.S. Air Force C-17 Globemaster III carried six Guatemalan girls to Galveston, Texas. U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) dispatched the aircraft from the 172nd Airlift Wing in Jackson, Mississippi, together with a medivac crew from the U.S. Army’s Brooke Army Medical Center at Fort Sam Houston, Texas.
Service members specialized in pediatric intensive care and burn treatment participated in the effort. The girls received care at a pediatric unit of Shriners Hospitals for Children in Galveston. Shriners is a Florida-based non-profit organization with 22 medical centers across the United States.
“Shriners Hospitals is uniquely prepared to respond to a tragedy of this proportion, having specialized pediatric burn hospitals across the country, “ stated John McCabe, Executive Vice President of Shriners Hospitals for Children. “We have a deep history of mobilizing to respond to tragedies across the globe and have committed to help these children.”
According to Cabañas, SOUTHCOM and the Guatemalan Ministry of Health coordinated transfer operations two days after the disaster. The Guatemalan Air Force also provided logistics support for the mission.
“They [the United States] transported children from one to 16 years old,” Carlos Soto Menegazzo, Guatemalan Minister of Health, told Diálogo. “We pray to God that all six children return to our country.”
For its part, the Mexican Department of the Navy, in coordination with the Mexican Embassy in Guatemala, contributed air ambulances to transfer injured children and adults over several days. According to Soto, the victims were taken to the National Rehabilitation Center in Mexico City, where they receive treatment that includes surgery and psychological support.
“These children range in age from eight to 14 […]. The first few days they were cared for at the Roosevelt, San Juan de Dios [in Guatemala City] and Escuintla hospitals,” Soto said. “Due to their condition, we requested urgent air ambulance assistance from the Mexican Embassy to transfer seven children for evaluation at the National Center for Research and Treatment of Burn Victims in Mexico City.”
Several adults with second- and third-degree burns were also evacuated to Mexico City to lessen the strain on overwhelmed Guatemala City hospitals. Helicopters from the Condor Group of the Mexican Ministry of Public Security assisted with the transfers.
In addition to air transport, SOUTHCOM contributed equipment for Guatemalan rescuer workers, who continue their labor in the disaster area. The equipment included hazardous gas detectors, tools, and personal protection equipment.
The U.S. government also pledged an initial $300,000 in humanitarian aid. In addition, members of the Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance of the U.S. Agency for International Development are on the ground in Guatemala, coordinating the provision of potable water, sanitation services, and non-food items to the victims.
Ground zero activities
In the disaster zone, rescuers and Guatemalan Armed Forces Army units resumed search efforts on June 13th. The volcano continues to erupt, thwarting search and body recovery efforts.
“Their [the Guatemalan Army] support has been total and absolute from Sunday, June 3rd onward. They participated directly in the recovery of bodies from ground zero,” Cabañas said. “Service members have been a crucial part of the emergency response and the rescue of residents trapped amidst the volcano’s pyroclastic flows. They help us with logistics and security in the 20 official shelters we set up.”
According to CONRED’s latest report on June 21th, the volcano took the lives of 112 people. Almost 200 people are missing, and more than 12,800 have been evacuated from communities on the volcano’s slopes.