Flies Buzzed. Thousands Died.

“Flies buzzed” was one of the best lead stories I ever wrote. Choloma, Honduras, about an hour from the Caribbean, a hot, humid, October, three days after Hurricane Fifi killed about 30,000 people. The illustration here isn’t that story, unfortunately, those things are hard to keep. I’m lucky to have this one.

Flies buzzed because the village of Choloma, about 9,000 people, was about 10 feet deep in mud. Most of those 9,000 were bodies, and bodies had to be burned before they were buried. And chopped up, with axes, to be burned. Like I said, hot, humid, and a smell not to be imagined, much less remembered.

I flew into Honduras about 12 hours after the hurricane on a Mexican Air Force DC-6 older than I was, pitching and bouncing, strapped onto a wood floor, a water leak dripping from the ceiling, and several huge boxes of relief supplies were also strapped on. The Mexican government let 6 foreign correspondents on the plane. I was one of the first international journalists into the place.

Interesting note about this Time Magazine story was that Bernie Diederich, quoted in the story, was there because I got him a hitchhiked plane ride from a small private plane at the airport; my Spanish was way better than his. I also started all of the press quoting Col. Andino. I was the first foreign correspondent in who spoke fluent Spanish, and Col. Andino, a swarthy short man about 40, relentlessly focused on foreign press to get him helicopters. I found him at headquarters in Tegucigalpa.

As the story ran on, for a week, Col. Andino became my ally in coverage. He gave me permission to increase the death toll by 5,ooo every time AP (the competition, staffed by eight people) caught up with UPI (me and Paul Wyatt, who flew in from Panama). UPI called me in the Tegucigalpa hotel middle of the night, more than once, saying competition was matching our death toll, and I, more than once, immediately increased it by 5,000, quoting Col. Andino.

Coverage took the death toll up to 30,000, which I suspect was because of me and Col. Andino and his relentless quest for helicopters, which he related to death toll. I notice the history books seem to have settled with 8,000 deaths (wikipedia, among others).