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AP
Hundreds of stranded tourists gather around a Mexican Air Force jet as they wait to be evacuated, at the air base in Pie de la Cuesta, near Acapulco, Mexico, Tuesday, Sept. 17, 2013. (AP Photo/Eduardo Verdugo)

Desperate thousands try to escape cut-off Acapulco

ACAPULCO, Mexico (AP) — Thousands of exhausted, hungry and increasingly despondent tourists lined up late into the night on a muddy road outside a military base for a chance to get home on one of two precious air bridges out of this famed beach resort isolated by landslides set off by Tropical Storm Manuel.

With the twin roads to Mexico City closed down, at least 40,000 tourists saw a long holiday beach weekend degenerate into a desperate struggle to get weeping children, elderly parents and even a few damp, bedraggled dogs back home.

Two of Mexico's largest airlines were running about two flights an hour from Acapulco's still-flooded international airport Tuesday, with priority for those with tickets, the elderly and families with young children.

Everyone else who couldn't wait for the government's promise to reopen the roads within two days flocked to Air Base 7 about 20 minutes north of Acapulco, where a military air bridge made up of barely more than a dozen aircraft ferried tourists to Mexico City. The normally quiet beach-front installation was transformed into a scene from a conflict zone.

Families in shorts and sandals waited for as long as eight hours outside the gates of the base, held at bay by rifle-toting soldiers until they were allowed to drag suitcases, pet carriers and red-eyed children across the tarmac, where they jostled furiously for a chance at one of the 150 seats on the next departing Air Force Boeing 727.

Military officials said only two of the passenger planes were in service, although a few hundred people got seats on one of the five helicopters or seven cargo planes also pressed into air bridge duty.

Many told of horror stories of spending the weekend trapped by torrential rains inside their hotels, emerging to discover there was no way back home.

"It's probably one of the worst holidays I've ever been on," said David Jefferson Gled, a 28-year-old from Bristol, England who teaches English at a private school in Mexico City. "It wasn't really a holiday, more of an incarceration."

By sunset Tuesday night, 24 hours after most vacationers were supposed to be back, less than 700 people had been flown out to Mexico City. Many times that number waited miserably on the runway or, worse, with thousands of other sweating, blank-eyed people in a roughly quarter-mile-long line outside the base.

"It's horrible. We haven't eaten anything since nine in the morning," said Lizbeth Sasia, a 25-year-old teacher from Cuernavaca. "They keep telling us we'll be on the next flight, but the next flight never comes."

Adding insult to injury, a few immaculately dressed families skipped the line and were escorted to private jets by soldiers, to the incredulous stares of the sweltering masses.

"We're cooking here, burnt. We're tired, desperate," said Irma Antonio Martinez, a 43-year-old housewife from suburban Mexico City who came to celebrate the three-day Independence Day weekend with 12 relatives. "We just want to get home to our poor house. Our families are waiting for us."

Asked how she felt, Juana Colin Escamilla cradled her toddler daughter and was able to get out one word, "bad" before she burst into tears.

A handful of big-box stores were looted Tuesday and cash machines along Acapulco's coastal boulevard were low on bills but most of the city's tourist zone otherwise appeared back to normal, with roads clear, restaurants and hotel open and brightly light and tourists strolling along the bay in an attempt to recover some of the leisure time lost to three days of incessant rains.

Gavin McLoughlin, 27, another teacher at Mexico City's Greengates School, said he went to Acapulco on a late night bus Thursday with about 30 other teachers at the school, many of whom are in their 20s.

"We had no idea of the weather," the Englishman said. "We knew there was a hurricane on the other side but not this side."

Officials said it had been more than 50 years since Mexico was hit by two tropical storm-strength weather systems and the death toll rose to 47 Tuesday from the unusual one-two punch of Manuel and Ingrid, which briefly became a hurricane as it pounded the Gulf Coast.

Interior Secretary Miguel Angel Osorio Chong told the Radio Formula that 27 people had died because of Manuel in the Pacific coast state of Guerrero, where Acapulco is located. Osorio Chong said 20 more people died nationwide, many as a result of Ingrid, which struck the Gulf coast on Monday. Mexican meteorologists said it was the first time since 1958 that two tropical storms or hurricanes had hit both the country's coasts within 24 hours.

Federal officials said it could take at least another two days to open the main highway to Acapulco, which was hit by more than 13 landslides from surrounding hills, and to bring food and relief supplies into the city of more than 800,000 people.

The situation was grim in parts of the city's low-income periphery, where steep hills funneled rainwater into neighborhoods of cinderblock houses.

City officials said about 23,000 homes, mostly on Acapulco's outskirts, were without electricity and water. Stores were nearly emptied by residents who rushed to stock up on basic goods. Landslides and flooding damaged an unknown number of homes.

The coastal town of Coyuca de Benitez and beach resorts further west of Acapulco were cut off after a river washed out a bridge on the main coastal highway.

Remnants of Manuel continued to drench Mexico further up the Pacific coast and the U.S. National Hurricane Center said it was expected to become a tropical storm by Tuesday night or Wednesday morning near resorts at the tip of the Baja California Peninsula.

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