'No signs of life' after huge mudslide - East Valley Tribune: Nation / World

'No signs of life' after huge mudslide

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Posted: Friday, February 17, 2006 5:12 am | Updated: 4:34 pm, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

MANILA, Philippines - A rain-soaked mountainside disintegrated into a torrent of mud in the eastern Philippines on Friday, swallowing hundreds of houses and an elementary school in sludge three stories high.

At least 23 bodies were recovered, but 1,500 people were missing and feared dead.

The farming village of Guinsaugon on Leyte island, 420 miles southeast of Manila, was virtually wiped out, with only a few jumbles of corrugated steel sheeting left to show that the community of some 2,500 people ever existed.

"It sounded like the mountain exploded, and the whole thing crumbled," survivor Dario Libatan told Manila radio DZMM. "I could not see any house standing anymore."

Southern Leyte province Gov. Rosette Lerias said: "There are no signs of life, no rooftops, no nothing."

Two other villages were inundated, and about 3,000 evacuees were at a municipal hall.

"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."

The mud was so deep - up to 30 feet in some places - and unstable that rescue workers had difficulty approaching the school, which was in session when the landslide occurred between 9 a.m. and 10 a.m.

Lerias told the British Broadcasting Corp. the school had 246 students and seven teachers. Only one child and one adult had been recovered.

About 100 people also were visiting the village for a women's group meeting.

The Philippine army and air force, and the Red Cross, were on the scene, but search-and-rescue efforts were called off at nightfall, Lerias said. She asked for people to dig by hand, saying the mud was too soft for heavy equipment.

"All those who could have come today have come," she told BBC. "We hope to be able to rescue some more people."

The U.S. military dispatched at least two warships and other forces to the area to provide medical assistance and other relief, officials said.

In Washington, Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Brian Maka said the military was dispatching the USS Essex and the USS Harper's Ferry, and possibly other ships. 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 the annual "Balikatan" exercise with the Philippine military.

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

Sen. Richard Gordon, head of the Philippine Red Cross, issued the casualty estimates and made an international appeal for aid.

There appeared to be little hope for finding many survivors, and only 53 were extricated from the brown morass before dark halted rescue efforts, officials said.

"I have a glimmer of hope, based on the rule of thumb - within 24 hours you can still find survivors," Lerias said. "After that, you move on to the recovery phase, but right now it's still rescue mode."

Aerial TV footage showed a wide swath of mud amid stretches of rice paddies at the foothills of the now-scarred mountain, where survivors blamed illegal logging for contributing to the disaster.

A small earthquake also shook the area, but scientists said it occurred after the landslide and likely was unrelated. Flash floods also were inundating the area, and the rumble of a secondary landslide sent rescuers scurrying for safety.

Rescue workers dug with shovels for signs of survivors, and put a child on a stretcher, with little more than the girl's eyes showing through a covering of mud. Other survivors were piled onto heavy construction equipment and driven to safety.

Volunteers from nearby provinces were quickly being joined by groups of troops being ferried in by helicopter, with more en route by sea.

Army Capt. Edmund Abella said he and about 30 soldiers from his unit were soaking wet from wading through waist-deep mud.

"The people said the ground suddenly shook, then a part of the mountain collapsed onto the village," Abella told AP by cell phone. "Some houses were carried by the mudflow, some were destroyed and other were buried.

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

He said troops had just rescued a 43-year-old woman.

"She was crying and looking for her three nephews, but they were nowhere to be found," Abella said.

While the official death toll was only 23, Lerias said 375 houses in Guinsaugon were feared buried after two weeks of nonstop rains blamed on the La Nina weather phenomenon. The village had 1,857 registered residents, she said.

"The ground has really been soaked because of the rain," Lerias said. "The trees were sliding down upright with the mud."

She said about 100 acres were covered in thick mud that remained unstable.

"Our communication line was cut because our people had to flee because the landslide appeared to be crawling," Lerias said.

Rep. Roger Mercado, who represents Southern Leyte, said the mud covered coconut trees and damaged the national highway leading to the village.

Lerias said many residents evacuated the area last week due to the threat of landslides or flooding but started returning home during increasingly sunny days, with the rains limited to evening downpours.

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 during World War II.

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.

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.

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