Search for landslide survivors slowed by rain

Thursday, February 23, 2006

GUINSAUGON, Philippines -- Rescue workers were thwarted Wednesday in a last-ditch effort to find an elementary school buried by a devastating landslide when a two-ton drill brought in by U.S. Marines couldn't be used and heavy rain forced officials to call off the day's search.

The drill is capable of digging 180 feet deep, and the school is believed to have been buried by up to 100 feet of mud and rock. But it went unused when U.S. Marines couldn't find the poles needed to brace it.

The search was then suspended Wednesday evening because officials said rain made conditions too dangerous, with a number of holes that had been dug in the unstable mud collapsing.

Up to 300 children and teachers were thought to have been trapped in the school when a mountainside collapsed Friday after two weeks of heavy rain, burying the farming village of Guinsaugon in a 100-acre blanket of mud. Hopes for a miracle have focused on the school largely because of unconfirmed reports that survivors there sent mobile phone text messages to relatives shortly after the landslide.

The official death toll has reached 107, based on the number of bodies recovered, but officials fear it could surpass 1,000. Another four bodies were pulled out Wednesday, but none near the school site.

With entire families wiped out, at least half the bodies have been buried in mass graves. One victim received a full funeral Wednesday.

Friends and family of Antonio Bulagsac carried his simple silver coffin to the St. Bernard cemetery.

A relative sang during the ceremony before Bulagsac was laid to rest in an old family plot.

Philippines President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo visited the headquarters of the relief operation on Wednesday, less than a mile from the village. She received a briefing from the provincial governor, shook hands with Marines and other rescue workers and consoled a police officer who lost his wife and two children.

"We were absolutely crushed by sorrow over what transpired. The loss of so many lives of men, women and children is too much to absorb," Arroyo said in the nearby city of Cebu.

Imelda Marcos, wife of late dictator Ferdinand Marcos, arrived separately and kissed Arroyo on the cheek before the president left.

Despite an intense search, no one has been able to find the school, uncertain if it was still on its foundation or was swept away by the wall of earth, boulders and trees.

A Philippine mining engineer, Melchor Taclobao, said searchers on Tuesday had abandoned the spot where they were initially digging after hitting ground about 65 feet down. No structure was found, he said, so they started digging at another spot about 100 yards away.

Rescue workers used thick blue rope to mark off a large area they believed to be where the school was located. The site was determined using a satellite map, a topographical map and layout of property boundaries.

Philippine soldiers began digging with shovels after daybreak, while Taiwanese emergency teams set up sensors, hoping to detect sounds of survivors below the surface. No one has been found alive since just hours after the disaster.

High-tech gear detected some underground sounds late Monday, creating a buzz of excitement and adrenaline among troops, miners and volunteers whose hopes of finding life had all but vanished. But when no survivors were found, engineers attributed the sounds to mud settling.

The Marines, some working 18-hour shifts, have been unable to bring in large generators because they shake the wet ground too much. An earthmover used in the search broke down Tuesday night, and U.S. servicemen clustered around the vehicle on Wednesday in an effort to fix it.

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