Laura Buttigieg stepped out of her hotel in the southern Guatemalan city of Antigua on Sunday to find the streets covered in ash. Lava and smoke were pouring from the crater of the nearby Volcan de Fuego.
“The ground and cars were painted black and it was raining what looked like mud. We realized it was volcanic ash and then heard the news of the eruption,” said Ms. Buttigieg, a Cayman Islands waitress and former Cayman Compass reporter who is currently traveling the world with her 2-year-old daughter, Ivy.
Early reports indicate that at least 69 people died in the eruption, which buried rural villages in a stream of lava and ash. Thousands more were left homeless in the tragedy and rescue workers have estimated the death toll could rise in the coming days.
Ms. Buttigieg, her daughter and Ivy’s father Jono Firstbrook, had been hiking the neighboring active Pacaya volcano the day before and had stopped to toast marshmallows on the steaming lava. On their way back, they could see smoke issuing from the crater of Fuego on the horizon, which they later discovered was a precursor to a much larger eruption.
They had initially planned an overnight hike to the Acatenango volcano, which included a trek close to the crater of Fuego. They changed their plans, however, due to bad weather and hiked to Pacaya instead.
She said she did not feel in danger, although she was close enough when Fuego erupted to take pictures from her hotel of a fiery orange glow coming from the volcano.
“It didn’t feel like a close call for us but it makes you realize how close to danger you can become,” she said. “It’s very surreal to be so close to a natural disaster. I think the strongest emotion is surrounding those families who lost loved ones. The people are so kind and friendly. It’s heartbreaking to see the death and destruction for them.”
According to international news reports, the majority of the victims lived in small villages on the slopes of the volcano and were killed by what is known as pyroclastic flow, a searing cloud of debris. More than 3,000 people were evacuated and rescue workers were still searching for survivors Tuesday amid a layer of ash and mud that had covered much of the landscape surrounding the volcano.
Ms. Buttigieg, who worked most recently at Yoshi Sushi restaurant on West Bay Road, plans to spend six months traveling before returning to Grand Cayman.