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Landslide may have killed 1,800

Rescuers search a buried village in the Philippines for a second day with little hope.

Associated Press
Published February 18, 2006


GUINSAUGON, Philippines - Rescue workers held little hope today of finding more survivors from a devastating landslide that killed an estimated 1,800 people, saying Guinsaugon, a farming village in the eastern Philippines, was swallowed whole by a wall of mud and boulders.

The search was focusing on an elementary school amid unconfirmed reports that relatives had received mobile phone text messages from survivors. Of 250 children and teachers, only one girl and a woman had been rescued alive nearby.

Many blamed persistent rains and illegal logging for Friday's disaster.

The logging "stopped around 10 years ago," Roger Mercado, a member of Congress who represents the area, told Manila radio station DZBB. "But this is the effect of the logging in the past."

Soldiers were being shuttled to the disaster zone in the shovels of bulldozers that carried them across a shallow stream. With the mud estimated at 30 feet deep at some points, they were given sketches of the village so they could figure out approximately where the houses once stood.

Lt. Col. Raul Farnacio, the highest-ranking military officer at the scene, estimated the death toll at about 1,800 - nearly every man, woman and child who lived in Guinsaugon, about 400 miles east of the capital, Manila.

"We presume that more or less that 1,800 are feared dead," a grim Farnacio said as search efforts resumed today in a drenching rain and high winds.

Only 57 survivors have been found - none so far today - out of a population of 1,857. At least 24 bodies have been pulled from the mud, and a child who was rescued died overnight from head injuries.

Farnacio said the troops were digging only where they saw clear evidence of bodies because of the danger that the soft, unstable mud could shift and claim new victims.

"We can only focus on the surface," he said. "We cannot go too deep."

Low clouds hung over the area, obscuring the mountain that disintegrated Friday morning after two weeks of heavy rains, covering the village's 375 homes and elementary school. Rescue workers trudged slowly through the sludge, stretchers and ambulances waiting for survivors or the bodies of victims.

Joining them was Dionisio Elmosora, a 42-year-old farmer who was looking for his wife and two sons.

"What's important is for me to find them even if they're dead," said Elmosora, his eyes bloodshot and his face grief-stricken. "I've not eaten since this thing happened."

The landslide left Guinsaugon, which is on the southern part of Leyte island, looking like a giant patch of newly plowed land. Only a few jumbles of corrugated steel sheeting indicate the town ever existed.

"Our village is gone, everything was buried in mud," Eugene Pilo, a survivor who lost his family, told local media on Friday. "All the people are gone."

"It sounded like the mountain exploded, and the whole thing crumbled," Dario Libatan, who lost his wife and three children, told radio station DZMM. "I could not see any house standing anymore."

A helicopter pilot, Leo Dimaala, estimated that half the mountain had collapsed Friday morning.

"We did not find injured people," said Ricky Estela, a crewman on a helicopter that flew a politician to the scene. "Most of them are dead and beneath the mud."

Aerial TV footage showed a wide swath of mud alongside stretches of green rice paddies at the foothills of the scarred mountain.

Pat Vendetti, of the Greenpeace environmental action group, said that that although logging is illegal in the Philippines, a combination of poor governance and corruption has hampered enforcement of the law.

"There were similar landslides at the end of 2004 and the end of 2003, both directly linked to illegal logging on land above villages, and both in the Philippines," said Vendetti.

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies blamed a combination of the weather and the type of trees prevalent in the area.

"The remote coastal area of southern Leyte ... is heavily forested with coconut trees," the Red Cross said from Geneva. "They have shallow roots, which can be easily dislodged after heavy rains, causing the land to become unstable."

Southern Leyte province Gov. Rosette Lerias said many residents evacuated the area last week because of the threat of landslides or flooding, but they had started returning home during increasingly sunny days.

Even before the landslide, "trees were sliding down upright with the mud," Lerias said.

Army Capt. Edmund Abella said he and about 30 soldiers were wading through waist-deep mud.

"It's very difficult, we're digging by hand, the place is so vast and the mud is so thick," Abella said. "When we try to walk, we get stuck in the mud."

He said the troops had just rescued a 43-year-old woman who "was crying and looking for her three nephews, but they were nowhere to be found."

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.

Maria Lim, mayor of St. Bernard town that includes Guinsaugon, said the body of a British man, Trevor White, had been recovered far from his house, described as one of the best concrete structures in the village. His Filipino wife was missing.

"Help is on the way," President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo said in televised remarks. "It will come from land, sea and air."

The international Red Cross launched an emergency appeal for $1.5-million for relief operations.

The United States is sending money requested by the Philippine government for search and rescue, White House spokesman Trent Duffy said. He did not say how much would be sent.

A Pentagon spokesman, Lt. Col. Brian Maka, said the U.S. military was dispatching the USS Essex and the USS Harper's Ferry. He said Army and Marine Corps ground forces that happened to be in the Philippines also were available to help.

Maka said it was not immediately clear how many U.S. troops would be sent to the disaster scene but he said nearly 6,000 happened to be in the region as participants in an exercise with the Philippine military.

Last weekend, seven road construction workers died in a landslide after falling into a 150-foot deep ravine in the mountain town of Sogod on Leyte.

In 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 2003.

In 1944, the waters off Leyte island became the scene of the biggest naval battle in history, when U.S. Gen. Douglas MacArthur fulfilled his famed vow "I shall return" and routed Japanese forces occupying the Philippines.