No survivors of landslide found

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Deep, unstable mud slowed the effort to dig out the town.

GUINSAUGON, Philippines -- The soldiers shouted and pounded stones on boulders, hoping that anyone still alive in the mud-covered elementary school would hear and signal back.

But on a day filled with disappointment, misery and constant danger, their efforts were met with silence.

Some 250 children and teachers had been in the school when a landslide engulfed it and the rest of the farming village of Guinsaugon on Friday. Unconfirmed reports suggested that some survived in the school and had sent cell phone text messages to relatives.

As the hours passed with no sign of life, though, hopes faded. The provincial governor admitted it would be a miracle if survivors were found anywhere where this village once stood.

As rain continued to fall, rescue workers were warned to tread carefully on the bog-like earth that could open up at anytime to claim new victims. Fearing more landslides, 11 villages were evacuated.

U.S. military ships steamed to the scene to help with the rescue effort.

No-fly zone established

The landslide, which followed two weeks of heavy rains, was believed to have killed nearly every man, woman and child in the farming village of Guinsaugon, which was covered with mud up to 30 feet deep.

The situation was so delicate that a no-fly zone was established over the area out of concern that blasts of air from the helicopters' rotors could send the mud oozing again in Guinsaugon, about 400 miles southeast of the capital, Manila.

Medical supplies and excavation equipment were reaching the area on Leyte island, and U.S. military ships were expected at daybreak Sunday, local time. But with no survivors found Saturday, it appeared the operation would be recovery instead of relief.

Only 57 people were plucked from the mud Friday from Guinsaugon's population of 1,857. At least 56 bodies were recovered.

Officials suspended the search operation after dark, with the footing too dangerous and no floodlights available to illuminate the 100-acre mud field, which was surrounded by a shallow stream.

President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo mentioned reports about cell phone messages sent by survivors in the swamped school during a televised staff meeting on the disaster. The reports gave impetus to the military to dispatch 60 soldiers to the area.

But as day turned to night, no signs of life were found, and officials admitted that they had been unable to confirm the existence of any genuine text messages from survivors.

Staff Sgt. Bienvenido Plaza of the Air Force Rescue Group said rescue workers shouted and used stones to bang on boulders in hopes that survivors would hear. There was only silence, he said.

Still, provincial Gov. Rosette Lerias said she was hoping for "a miracle" and she said rescue dogs would be sent to the school Sunday.

"I would like to believe it's true," she said. "I am giving it the benefit of the doubt, and that is why we are concentrating on the school building."

Not much else was left to concentrate on.

Survivors and relatives of the missing had trouble even figuring out where houses once stood in the stretch of mud. Soldiers, firefighters and volunteers were given sketches of the village as it stood just days ago, but all the landmarks had been wiped away.

"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."

The search was complicated by morning downpours, the threat that the mountain remained unstable and the possibility that 750 troops, firefighters and volunteers could get sucked down into the soft, shifting mud.

Weather forecasts said Leyte was expected to get more rain late Saturday and Sunday before conditions improve. The area, which is prone to landslides and flooding, has been drenched by 27 inches of rain over the last two weeks.

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," he said. Survivors blamed illegal logging for contributing to the disaster.

As news of the scale of the devastation reached international shores, emergency supplies, financial aid and offers of condolences poured in.

In Geneva, the international Red Cross appealed for $1.5 million to buy temporary shelter materials and other emergency health and cooking items.

The USS Essex and the USS Harper's Ferry, along with 17 helicopters and 1,000 U.S. Marines, were diverted to the scene from planned joint exercises.

Marine Capt. Burrel Parmer, a spokesman for the exercises, said a U.S. humanitarian assistance survey team was assessing the disaster area.

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 days turned sunny.

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.

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