They had passed just one or two houses before Andrew’s driver had to brake suddenly and hard. Their route forward was blocked by a mix of mud and rocks. The sliding sounds behind told Andrew that the trucks had quickly followed suit, and the lack of a loud bang that they’d done so successfully. He jumped from the jeep, almost before it had stopped moving, and began to carefully pick his way over the obstacle. It was only seconds before he was at the top and could see enough beyond to conclude that afterwards the road was, while not totally clear, at least passable again, at least for as far as he could see clearly in the darkness.
From his vantage point he could see that where the town proper began were a small crowd of people, some carrying torches and lamps while others were, Andrew guessed, digging into the huge piles of mud under which at least two buildings were all but submerged.
Andrew’s training had taught him that haphazard digging by a lot of people could do a lot more harm than good. People climbing around on the mud pile could accidentally shift it, unplanned digging could suddenly free up previously held debris to collapse on survivors below. He rushed forwards, past the dishevelled women and children that lined the sides of the road between him and the working crowd. He was shouting and waving his hands as he ran. While they didn’t look as if they understood his words, either his gestures were unmistakable or just the surprise of a stranger in uniform turning up in their midst was enough for most of them to stop what they were doing. The few that were too deeply caught up in their activities to notice him carried on, until taps and nudges from their neighbours made them cease and look across at him.
He stopped short of the mound itself and waited for the mostly men to climb down to him. Some came straight away. Others just stood still and stared in his direction. He waved at them, gesturing them to join him.
“Do any of you speak Werlderin?” he asked. “English?” he followed up when the original question drew only blank looks as a response.
“Perhaps I should have a try, sir,” said a voice just behind him. P. Mendez had followed him over the obstruction in the road and now that Andrew had stopped running forward had caught up.
“Do you speak the local lingo then?” asked Andrew.
“Not exactly, sir, but I’d guess that my version of Spanish is close enough to theirs for them to understand the gist, at least.”
“Worth a try then,” said Andrew. He cast around, and saw what looked like an old bread basket to stand on so that he’d be visible to most of the small crowd that had gathered around them. He walked over to it and climbed on.
“I’ve brought equipment and men to help.” He spoke loudly, then waited while P. Mendez translated. “The first thing we need to do is stop digging until we know for sure where and how to do it.”
He waited again while P. Mendez relayed his words. Translation was a skill that he very much doubted P. Mendez would have picked up or needed in his experience to date.
One of the policemen said something at the end of this instruction , and Andrew looked enquiringly at P. Mendez.
“He … er … wants to know who put you in charge, sir..”
“O.K.,” said Andrew, hesitating only slightly. “Does anyone else here have training or knowledge of how to react to this kind of event?” he called to the crowd.
The reply, after P. Mendez had put the question in Spanish, was silence. After a brief pause, to allow for this, Andrew continued.
“Well, I have. I’ve had the right training, and I’ve got the right equipment, so I’m putting myself in charge. Anyone have a problem with that?”
Even the policeman who had asked the question originally reacted with a silent answer. Andrew let the silence hang in the air for a few moments, before continuing.
“Some of my men will carry out the search in these buildings,” he informed them. “They know how the equipment works and they’ve had training on the right places to dig and how to do it. We also need to clear the road into the town. More relief vehicles will be here soon, and the closer we can get them the better. I’ll send some men to make a start, but it’ll be much quicker if you all help them. If anyone is hurt we have medics who can take care of you.”
Andrew paused between each sentence, to allow P. Mendez time to translate his words.
One of the older men from the crowd started to cut his way through the people around him, closely followed by the police officer who had asked who had put him in charge. The men spoke briefly to P. Mendez, all the time looking towards the young lieutenant.
While Andrew waited, he looked around to take in the scene, and to see if there was anything else he needed to organise. Approaching him, not quite running but at a very brisk pace, was Sergeant Major Smith. The sergeant major waited until he was close enough to the lieutenant to start speaking.
“I’ve arranged for some of the men to bring up the sounding equipment, and set some of the others to clearing the road. The medics have brought up their gear and I’ve told them to start helping wherever they’re needed. The rest are unloading the emergency supplies from the lorries. They’ll be ready to do whatever you direct in just a few moments.”
Andrew cursed himself. All of the way to the town he’d spent the trip telling himself how important it was to size up the situation calmly, then issue appropriate instructions. As soon as the jeep had stopped and he’d rushed up to the top of the mound, on seeing the people searching for survivors he’d forgotten all about sensible planning and instead let himself get dragged into the moment. It was lucky that his sergeant major had covered for him by reacting more professionally. And the report he was giving Andrew was very ‘matter of fact’. The sergeant major’s tone contained none of the accusation of impetuosity that Andrew felt for himself. Andrew nodded, then looked back to P. Mendez and his companions.
“This is Mr. Gomez, sir. He’s the chief Councillor of the town.”
“Good,” said Andrew. “Ask him if he knows exactly what happened.”
He waited, while the two men exchanged a long hurried dialogue then looked at the private, to find out what the old man had said.
The town had been under an overhang, a small stream eating away beneath it. Everyone had thought that it might come down one day, but it had been like it for many years so no-one had really taken much notice. Recent rains, which had descended on the hill, had strengthened the flow of the stream and caused it to flood, eventually eating through enough of the earth to loosen the overhang and send much of it crashing down on the town below.
“O.K.,” said Andrew, “that explains the water still coming down. No doubt the fall has blocked the original path and the stream’s now coming straight down here as its easiest route.”
There was a strong and steady flow of water from the dark jungle above, across the road and into the fields opposite. This was starting to pool, filling the fields and threatening to spill back onto the road again.
He signalled P. Mendez to give him the radio, and gave detailed instructions for some of the company to find where the overhang had come down, and see if a channel could be made to get the stream to flow back down its natural course.
“Was anyone hurt?” he enquired.
The townsfolk had been ‘lucky’ in that the collapse had happened in the late afternoon. Most of them were in the fields opposite working their land. A few older people were in the houses, and one of the buried buildings was the local school. Lessons had finished and most of the kids had left for their houses already when the slide happened. Mr. Gomez thought, however, that there were one or two children left inside, along with the head teacher.
There were some broken limbs, and Andrew saw that his medics were already attending to these, and several cuts and bruises of course. It seemed that most of these latter had happened after the original collapse, as a result of their rescue efforts. So far, they’d only found one person who had been killed by the fall, an old woman, stabbed by a plank of wood from a shattered house.
The policeman had started to speak as P. Mendez reported what the old man had told him, but Andrew had held up a hand to stop him, wanting to get the full story so far before the private got any more information. Once P. Mendez had finished, he looked at the officer, inviting him to continue his interrupted report. There was another brief exchange of words, mainly from the policeman with the private asking one or two questions it seemed. The policeman had already been in town on another call when the slide happened. His now abandoned car had been pushed across the road into the fields, and Andrew could see its overturned form not far away. The electrics were still going and the headlights shone, feebly now, into the field beyond, lighting up a small patch of the crops growing there. A headcount amongst the townsfolk had shown that there were five missing – the school teacher and two of the local children, an old man, and the lady who ran the local shop, a kind of supermarket. Well, a supermarket only in that it sold a very wide variety of goods. This was the other building Andrew had seen buried. There might, of course, be more children in the school, those from outlying farms whose parents hadn’t, yet, reported as missing. There wasn’t really any way of telling except by digging out the school.
He nodded his understanding as P. Mendez finished this second report, and told the two men they could probably best help by joining the team clearing the road through. He gave instruction for his own men to start using the listening devices they’d brought to try to find out if there were indeed survivors buried in the school or in the shop next door. He also ordered that one of the men back at the truck should start preparing some hot drinks. The night was warm enough, but he’d seen definite signs of shock on many of the people that had passed him, and a strong tea or coffee would no doubt help to relieve this, in the milder cases at least. The radio crackled to tell him that the third truck, with its extra troops and supplies, had arrived. He sent some of these to help redirect the stream, and kept some back. For now, they’d help clear the road. If they found survivors their assistance might be needed in digging them out of the spaces they were trapped in.