Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal
Every year, Mary Fox takes a group of her students from The International School at Mesa del Sol on a trip to Guatemala.
“I’ve always felt that teenagers should travel,” she said by phone on Thursday from Guatemala City.
Fox and four teenagers from the school in Southeast Albuquerque headed out last month to Antigua, an experience intended to provide an opportunity to learn Spanish, offer community service and immerse them in a foreign culture.
It’s an ancient city nestled among the peaks of active volcanoes.
Little did they know they would experience firsthand a massive volcanic eruption and the tragedy that ensued. Or that they would have an opportunity to make a difference in the lives of some of those affected.
Fox and four students – Kiera Mitchell and Gabriella Romero, both 14, and twin sisters Sunandita and Madhumita Santhanam, 15, along with Kiera’s mother, Kim Eichhorst – arrived in Antigua late on May 23.
They’d be staying in a home along with other travelers from around the world.
On weekdays, the group spent four hours every morning in Spanish class, and four hours in the afternoon acting as teacher’s aides in a nearby school.
Weekends were spent on cultural outings: visiting Mayan ruins, hiking, touring a coffee plantation.
On June 3, a Sunday, the group was enjoying a mountain zipline course when they heard a rumbling sound.
Twenty minutes later, as they finished, the ashes began to rain down.
The windshield of their vehicle became clouded by the ash and the driver stopped to try to use water to clean it.
But that just further obscured the view as the ashes and water turned into a sort of mud that couldn’t be removed, so the driver navigated the way down by sticking his head out the window.
“When we got down, there were car accidents, one after another,” Fox said. “Everything was covered in a layer of ash.”
Still, the volcanoes in the area have small eruptions on a fairly regular basis, so the severity of the situation wasn’t immediately clear.
But this eruption caused a pyroclastic flow – a fast-moving torrent of hot gas, rock and ash that can move at hundreds of miles per hour.
Hundreds live in villages in the flow’s path; many were killed instantly or died after their homes were buried under the toxic mixture. At least 100 have been confirmed dead, with hundreds more missing.
Antigua is located around 12 miles from Volcán de Fuego.
“It was exciting at first because it was a unique experience,” Sunandita said. But then the extent of the tragedy became more apparent. “Knowing a lot of people lost their families and houses, it’s really sad to think about.”
The public school where the girls were volunteering was closed for the next three days in mourning for the victims of the disaster. Then, Fox was contacted by a fellow International School teacher who knew a teacher at an Antigua school who was organizing an effort to provide food to first responders at the scene, “Zona Cero.”
Fox consulted with her husband back in the U.S. and they decided to contribute to buying the materials for sandwiches, plus cookies and juice boxes.
The girls woke up early each morning, then prepared and delivered the lunches before their 8 a.m. Spanish class.
After a trial run on June 8 that yielded around 50 meals, the team prepared 100 of the lunches every day until Wednesday, when they departed Antigua.
But the group said they couldn’t have done it alone.
In addition to the Foxes’ contribution, housemates, including a missionary couple from Connecticut, a woman from Arizona and men from South Korea and Canada, donated money and aided in buying supplies and preparing the lunches.
All told, the international effort resulted in more than 500 meals that were hand-delivered to those working to recover the bodies of those who lost their lives in the eruption.
“I thought it was really cool to work with people from all around the world,” Kiera said. “Despite being from different places, we all had the same, good morals.”
The group arrived back in Albuquerque on Friday, but the girls said they wouldn’t soon forget what they learned on the trip.
Hundreds remain missing. Some Guatemalans lost dozens of family members in the tragedy.
“They don’t have anything to back themselves up with when something like this happens,” Kiera said. “In America, we have so much to fall back on.”