World’s deadliest avalanche killed 30,000 – but clown led 300 children to safety

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There were only 400 survivors from the deadliest avalanche on record, which is believed to have killed as many as 30,000 people, and most of them were saved by a clown.

The Huascarán avalanche was triggered exactly 52 years ago on May 31, 1970 when an earthquake destabilised a glacier at the top of a mountain in Yungay Province, Peru.

As the mass of snow and ice roared down the mountainside it collected a huge mass of rocks and gravel, turning into an unstoppable avalanche.

On its 100-mile journey to the Pacific coast, it smashed through the town of Yungay, where thousands had gathered for the weekly Sunday market.

Little remained of Yungay after the combined damage from the earthquake and avalanche. Only a few grim reminders of it sexistence, such as the ruined cathedral and cemetery, can still be seen in the area.

The only other sign that the town ever existed is "a statue of Jesus Christ with his arms outstretched, standing tall above the rubble" which remains today as a memorial to the thousands killed in the disaster.

The Ancash earthquake (also known as the Great Peruvian earthquake) struck at about 3.20pm.

The quake, which measured 7.9 on the Richter scale, affected an area of over 32,000 square miles, an area larger than Ireland.

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As the avalanche it caused gathered more mass, it turned into a deadly mudflow that travelled at 270 mph, ejecting some small rocks and stones at speeds estimated in the region of 680 mph.

Yungay’s 25,000 inhabitants stood little chance.

Many of them had rushed into the church to pray after the earthquake struck and they were quickly entombed inside it.

“We were on our way from Yungay to Caraz when the earthquake struck,” survivor Mateo Casaverde told the Peruvian Times.

“When we stepped out of the car, the earthquake was almost over. Then we heard a deep, low rumble, something distinct from the noise an earthquake makes, but not too different. It came from the Huascarán.

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"Then we saw, half-way between Yungay and the mountain, a giant cloud of dust. Part of the Huascarán was coming toward us. It was approximately 3:24.

"Where we were," he added, "the only place that offered us relative security, was the cemetery, built upon an artificial hill, like a pre-Incan tomb. We ran approximately 100 meters before we got to the cemetery. Once I reached the top, I turned to see Yungay. I could clearly see a giant wave of grey mud, about 60 meters high.

“Moments later, the landslide hit the cemetery, about five meters below our feet. The sky went dark because of all the dust, mostly from all of the destroyed homes. We turned to look, and Yungay, as well as its thousands of inhabitants, had completely disappeared.”

Henri Gómez, a local tourist guide who also survived the disaster, added that among the small number of survivors were 300 children, who had been taken to the circus at the local stadium, set on higher ground and on the outskirts of the town.

He said one of the circus clowns had saved their lives: “The clown led the children to safety like the Pied Piper,” he said. “As soon as the earthquake struck, he led them from his tent to higher ground.”

The US Geological Survey, in its report on the catastrophe, estimated that while over 30,000 lost their lives in the catastrophe, “it is doubtful that the true number will ever be known”.

Today, what was once the thriving town of Yungay is a national cemetery. Digging to recover the dead, or to hunt for any valuables that once belonged to them, is strictly prohibited.

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