Hope of finding mudslide survivors fades

Int'l aid streams to Philippines; searches focus on site where school once was.

landslide victim 298 (photo credit: )
landslide victim 298
(photo credit: )
Rescue workers on Saturday searched a sea of mud in vain for survivors of a massive landslide that killed up to 1,800 people, as officials worried about a repeat of the disaster. Two US warships and 1,000 Marines were streaming to Leyte island in the eastern Philippines, where 11 villages were evacuated in the same area where the farming village of Guinsaugon was wiped out Friday when half a mountain came crashing down after two weeks of torrential downpours. Hopes were fading fast for finding anyone alive in the 40-hectare (100-acre) stretch of mud that was 10 meters (30 feet) deep in places. "No one alive has been found today, only the dead," said Joselito Rabi, a provincial social worker. Efforts focused on a swamped elementary school, with unconfirmed reports that some of the 250 students and teachers sent cell phone text messages to relatives. Sixty soldiers were dispatched to the scene in the morning, but had found nothing but bodies as dark fell. The search was complicated by heavy morning downpours, the threat that the adjacent mountain remained unstable, and the possibility that 752 troops, firefighters and volunteers could get sucked down into the soft, shifting mud. The situation was so dangerous that most would-be volunteers were kept out of the area, and a no-fly zone was established over the site because of fears that helicopters' downwash could set off a fresh landslide. Weather forecasts said a low-pressure area over the Pacific Ocean about 900 kilometers (560 miles) southeast of Leyte was likely to generate rain over the landslide zone later Saturday and Sunday before the weather improves. Survivors had a tough time figuring out where houses used to be. Sketches of what the village used to look like didn't help much. "It's hard to find the houses now," said Eunerio Bagaipo, a 42-year-old farmer who lost two brothers, almost 20 nieces and nephews and a number of in-laws. "There is nothing now, just earth and mud." Eleven nearby villages were evacuated, said Rosette Leria, governor of Southern Leyte province. The area, which is prone to landslides and flooding, has been drenched by 68 centimeters (27 inches) of rain over the last two weeks. Lt. Col. Raul Farnacio, the highest-ranking military officer at the scene, estimated nearly every man, woman and child died in Guinsaugan, 670 kilometers (420 miles) southeast of Manila. Only 57 people have been plucked from the mud - none Saturday - out of a population of 1,857. At least 55 bodies have been found, and a child who originally survived died overnight from head injuries. Farnacio said troops were only digging where they saw clear evidence of bodies. "We can only focus on the surface; we cannot go too deep," he said. Army Capt. Edmund Abella called the conditions extremely hazardous. "A few minutes ago, mounds of earth came down from the mountain again with the rain and rescuers ran away to safety," Abella said. Low clouds hung over the area, obscuring the mountain that disintegrated Friday morning, covering the village's 375 homes and school. Rescue workers trudged slowly through the sludge. Governor Lerias asked for people to dig by hand, saying the mud was too soft for heavy equipment. The wide swath of mud sat amid stretches of rice paddies at the foothills of the now-scarred mountain, where survivors blamed illegal logging for contributing to the disaster. Helicopter pilot Leo Dimaala estimated that half the mountain collapsed and continued to shed mud and boulders. In Geneva, the international Red Cross appealed for 2 million Swiss francs (US$1.5 million) to buy temporary shelter materials and other emergency health and cooking items. Relief planes headed in with food and water, as well as sniffer dogs and search equipment. The USS Essex and the USS Harper's Ferry, along with 17 helicopters and 1,000 US Marines, were diverted to the scene from planned joint exercises and were expected to arrive at daybreak Sunday. US Marine Capt. Burrel Parmer, a spokesman for the exercises, said a US humanitarian assistance survey team was assessing the disaster area. "We're so pleased to be able to offer this assistance," Jones said. "We were about to practice this together in Balikatan, and this is an opportunity to do it together." Many residents of the landslide area were evacuated last week due to the threat of landslides or flooding following the heavy rains, but had started returning home when the rains let up and days turned sunny. Carlos Mencide, a high school teacher in the neighboring village of Tambis, said a local shaman warned people three days ago that something terrible was about to happen, but nobody paid any attention. In 1944, the waters off Leyte island became the scene of the biggest naval battle in history, when US Gen. Douglas MacArthur fulfilled his famed vow "I shall return" and routed Japanese forces occupying the Philippines. In November 1991, about 6,000 people were killed on Leyte in floods and landslides triggered by a tropical storm. Another 133 people died in floods and mudslides there in December 2003.