Everything in Guatemala City had a thick layer of ash over it. You could feel the ash crunching underneath your sandals.
Just hours after Guatemala's Volcan de Fuego erupted Sunday night, Chattanooga-area resident Miriam Lemon got a phone call.
It was Karla Mogollon, doctor and director of the Guatemalan clinic operated by the nonprofit organization Lemon founded, Love In Action, breaking the news to her.
Emergency crews have been pulling bodies from what remains of villages devastated by the eruption, but time was quickly running out to find survivors late Wednesday as the confirmed death toll rose to 99, with nearly 200 still missing, according to The Associated Press.
Authorities had to suspend search and recovery efforts Wednesday afternoon, citing the dangers posed by rain and new flows of volcanic material and debris.
Thousands of people displaced by the eruption have sought refuge in shelters, many of them with dead or missing loved ones and facing an uncertain future, unable to return to homes destroyed by the volcano.
Local donation drop-off locations
Loa 6: 400A Chickamauga Road
Loa 7: 1500 Broad Street
St. Joseph Clinic: 1720 Gunbarrel Road
La Guatemalteca #3: 2109 E. Main Street
La Guatemalteca #4: 3416 Rossville Boulevard Suite 3
Servicios Profesionales Maya: 6960 Lee Highway
La Paz Chattanooga: 1402 Bailey Avenue
Medical supplies and surgical equipment needed:
Gauze and bandages
Personal care toiletries
Toys for children
See Love In Action’s website for more lists and donation sites.
Firefighters said the chance of finding anyone alive amid the still-steaming terrain was practically nonexistent 72 hours after Sunday's volcanic explosion. Thick gray ash covering the stricken region was hardened by rainfall, making it even more difficult to dig through the mud, rocks and debris that reached to the rooftops of homes.
"Nobody is going to be able to get them out or say how many are buried here," Efrain Suarez told the Associated Press, standing amid the smoking holes dotting what used to be the village of San Miguel Los Lotes on the flanks of the mountain.
"The bodies are already charred," the 59-year-old truck driver said. "And if heavy machinery comes in, they will be torn apart."
Chattanooga resident Courtney McDonald was on her third mission trip in Guatemala and was about two-and-a-half hours from the volcano when it erupted. She said they saw ash start raining down almost as soon as they heard what had happened.
"Everything in Guatemala City had a thick layer of ash over it," she said. "You could feel the ash crunching underneath your sandals."
She made it home on time, she said, though airplanes were packed, as many earlier flights had been canceled.
In Chattanooga, connected by a phone line, Lemon and Mogollon "immediately started thinking about what it is [they're] going to be doing and trying to develop a plan there and a plan here," Lemon said.
Mogollon gave Lemon a list of victims' immediate needs, and the two began coordinating to activate funds so Mogollon could acquire water and food and other aid to deliver. Locally, Lemon and her organization have joined forces with La Paz Chattanooga to ask for community support.
Jessica Cliche, director of community health and wellness for La Paz, and Lemon are both Guatemalans. The two met Monday morning and discussed how to spread the word about the volcano relief campaign.
The biggest needs right now are medical supplies to help the many burn victims, such as gauze, ointment for wounds, wheelchairs, crutches and protective boots for firefighters looking for the missing.
"The hospitals are overwhelmed and the fire department is overwhelmed," Cliche said, adding that firefighters' boots are melting due to the extreme heat caused by the lava.
Cliche said she and other native Guatemalans are seeing very raw images of the devastation via the country's news organizations that don't filter graphic images.
"People aren't seeing that, but we [Guatemalans] are," she said. "And my heart is broken. If my heart is broken, and I don't even have family [affected], I can't even imagine [those who do]."
She said the people who lost the most are those who were already in need.
"It's devastating for me as a Guatemalan, and it's devastating as a human being, because when you see these kinds of disasters, you hurt for the people," she said.
Volcano eruptions aren't that uncommon in Guatemala, both Cliche and Lemon said. The country has a lot of volcanoes, so people are used to hearing rumblings and seeing ashes and smoke filling the air, along with periodic evacuations. In fact, Fuego has been in a continuously active period since 2002, according to the National Museum of National History.
It's the magnitude of Sunday's eruption that took people by surprise, Lemon said.
"People never thought that it would be so terrible," she said. "... I think people will be more fearful now because for so many years, we have been seeing that same volcano in eruption."
One of the people who lost his home was Alfonso Castillo, the Associated Press reported. At first nothing seemed abnormal Sunday, the 33-year-old farm worker said. But then a huge cloud of ash came pouring out.
"In a matter of three or four minutes, the village disappeared," Castillo said. It was smothered in what he described as a "sea" of muck that came crashing into homes, inundating people, pets and wildlife.
"Nobody wants to go back there," Castillo said. "My children say they would rather be in the streets. ... There are many people who are helping us, but we have absolutely nothing. We could not get anything out. For us, there is no tomorrow."
Cliche said it's a real crisis because families like Castillo's are permanently displaced.
"If you have the means to help, then you should," said McDonald. "We all live in one world. And the fact that we've separated ourselves so much, 'That's not my problem, that's not my problem.' It's heartbreaking to me."
For more information on where and what to donate, visit Love In Action's website at loveinactionmission.org/contribute.
Contact staff writer Rosana Hughes at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6327 with tips or story ideas. Follow her on Twitter @HughesRosana.