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Giant sinkhole shocks neighborhood in Guatemala City

From Helena de Moura, CNN
  • Residents had filed complaints since 2005
  • Another sinkhole killed three in 2008
  • Studies show that overbuilding may contribute to formation of sinkholes

(CNN) -- Residents of a center-city neighborhood in Guatemala City, Guatemala, are still in shock after a massive sinkhole opened last weekend, gobbling several buildings and nearly an entire intersection, according to local officials.

Over the weekend, the nearly perfect cylindrical crater developed and consumed whatever was on its surface, including structures and utility lines. There were no reports of deaths related to the sinkhole.

The sinkhole's destruction added to the tragic events in Central America related to Tropical Storm Agatha, which left a death toll of more than 175 people in the region that includes Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.

The 20-meter (about 66 feet) diameter sinkhole is about 30 meters (about 100 feet) deep.

Guatemala City's human rights ombudsman, Sergio Morales, confirmed reports that since 2005, residents in the area had complained of rumblings, fissures and sinking terrain.

"Yes, we can attest that they have been complaining since 2005 and we are looking into the initial complaints, " said Morales.

"We are looking into the original response by municipal authorities," he said.

In an interview with the newspaper Prensa Libre, neighborhood association president Augusto Lopez Rincon said he believed that excessive traffic caused by commercial trucks was to blame for the sinkhole.

Gallery: Agatha wreaks havoc on Central America

There are unconfirmed reports that the street's infrastructure was weakened by the storms, officials said. David Monterroso, geology director of Guatemala's Disaster Relief Agency, told Prensa Libre there should be an in-depth analysis of the soil consistency to determine how many houses near the sinkhole are still in danger of collapsing.

He said according to preliminary studies, the bottom of the sinkhole is irregular and that sewers and water lines may have contributed to the sinkhole's formation.

The size and shape of the crater led some of the more than 1,000 readers posting comments on the story on to debate how it could have formed and whether it was even real.

"The picture looks unreal, 'Photoshoped' but it may just look that strange," OhioInd posted.

Edhead76 replied: "Believe me this picture is no fake. Guatemala has a very odd terrain. They have a lot of mountainous regions and the capital is somewhat level, but artificially. they have mudslides all the time."

According to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), sinkholes are common where the rock below the land surface is limestone, carbonate rock, salt beds or rocks that can naturally be dissolved by ground water circulating through them.

One local resident believes ground water has something to do with the sinkhole.

"It sounds like there's a river down there," said business owner Armando Gomez. "I don't think that the earth gave way and that was that. There's something else that caused it."

USGS studies show that new sinkholes have emerged recently as a result of land-use practices such as ground-water pumping, and from construction and development practices.

In 2007, another sinkhole claimed three lives in Barrio San Antonio in Guatemala City.