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Colombia bids farewell to victims of deadly flooding

Relatives of avalanche victims mourn next to funeral signs in Salgar, in Colombia's northwestern state of Antioquia, Thursday, May 21, 2015. Some victims of the mudslide, which was triggered by heavy rains in the mountain town early May 18 and killed at least 84 people, will be buried during a group funeral on Thursday. (AP Photo/Luis Benavides)

SALGAR, Colombia (AP) — Thousands of mourners poured into the streets Thursday to bid farewell to dozens of the victims of a deadly mudslide that ravaged this coffee-growing town nestled deep in the Andes

Church bells rang out as a caravan of funeral coaches arrived from Medellin, three hours away, carrying the bodies of the first 33 of 84 people killed in Monday’s flash flood.

A military band played Taps as soldiers positioned the caskets in front of the town’s main church, where Bishop Cesar Balbin read a letter of condolences sent by Pope Francis. Several high-ranking military officers attended but President Juan Manuel Santos, who visited Salgar in the aftermath of the tragedy, stayed behind in Bogota to welcome Chinese Premier Li Keqiang.

Mourners, many of them wailing and grasping at caskets, had to be held back by police trying to prevent the crowds from entering the town’s cemetery. One woman fainted.

The above-ground vaults had been prepared for the burials by gravedigger John Edison Londono, who had worked around the clock since the mudslide.

The frenzied pace was an emotional as well as a professional response to tragedy. By stoically losing himself in his work, Londono postponed grieving for 15 of his own relatives who were among the at least 84 dead.

“It’s very sad, sad, sad,” Londono told The Associated Press. “But you need to be on your feet, ready to fight, to help bury all of our compatriots.”

None of those buried Thursday were among the relatives lost by Londono.

The flash flood triggered by heavy rains was Colombia’s deadliest natural disaster since 1999. An unknown number of people remained missing, but authorities said the chances of finding anyone alive buried under the mud were nil.

Authorities have turned their attention to providing shelter and assistance to the more than 500 people affected by the tragedy. The goal is to rebuild, but Londono said that might prove difficult, because many longtime residents are ready to leave out of fear of another disaster.

Coffee plantations that had been standing for a century were wiped out. Entire neighborhoods were converted into grey moonscapes. The body of at least one victim was carried by the raging current more than 60 miles (100 kilometers) downriver.

Londono said the town cemetery could not handle the demands. Although there are 101 above-ground concrete vaults available for burials, he said many of them had been overtaken by mold and moisture and needed to be cleaned out.

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