No sign of survivors in search at landslide village

Uncertain if they were even digging in the right place, rescue workers in the Philippines today tried to find a mud-swamped school mid fears that time already may have run out for finding survivors of a massive landslide.

“We have not found any structure to indicate the location of the school,” said Joel Son, in charge of a group of miners working at the site. “It’s all mud.”

It was another frustrating day, with no one found alive since just hours after a mountainside collapsed on Friday in a wall of mud and boulders that swamped the farming village of Guinsaugon on Leyte island. The official death toll rose to 107 and officials fear it could surpass 1,000.

Most rescue workers left the site a few hours after dark, with a few teams using specialised gear staying behind to take advantage of the silence to listen for sounds under the mud.

Hopes of a miracle have focused on the school amid unconfirmed reports that survivors there sent mobile phone text messages to relatives shortly after the landslide hit.

High-tech gear detected some underground sounds late yesterday, creating a buzz of excitement and adrenaline among troops, miners and volunteers whose hopes of finding life had all but vanished.

By today, the buzz was gone again, replaced by a grim workmanlike attitude.

The US Marines, Philippine troops and technicians from Malaysia and Taiwan had to give up digging at the most promising site because the soft, wet mud kept collapsing.

“As we’d dig deeper, we’d try to dig wider, but with the rain last night ... there were little landslides happening around us,” said Lt. Jack Farley, who was heading the Marine contingent. “The soil here is so unstable.”

They shifted to another spot about 200 yards away.

The school is believed to be buried by up to 100 feet of muck, and ground-penetrating radar that is capable of detecting structures up to 50 feet down has come up blank.

With the landscape drastically changed, no one could be sure they were digging at the right place. Some people suggested the school was still on the same spot where it had been built; others said it could have been washed downhill.

“Even the local population has kind of lost their bearings,” Farley said. “They don’t have those terrain features around to distinguish where something really is.”

The threat of more rain-triggered landslides also slowed the search, and it was unclear if the scratching and tapping noises that were heard yesterday came from survivors or just ground water or mud settling.

“A few times we heard something, we think we heard something, because we really want to hear something,” Farley said. “If there is anything at all, we’re gonna go there.”

The confirmed death toll was 107, and about 1,000 were missing and feared dead, said provincial Gov. Rosette Lerias.

Officials had refused to allow heavy machinery in the disaster zone out of fear it could cause the unstable mud to shift, but with conditions solidifying and shovels making little headway, they brought in a backhoe. It had similar problems with holes that it dug caving in.

“Safety is an ongoing concern right now because of the rain,” said US Marine Capt. Burrell Parmer, one of hundreds of American servicemen involved in the recovery operation. “So far, no survivors have been recovered. It’s a sad deal.”

Search teams moved carefully, unable to work as fast as they wanted for fear that their movements could set off more landslides.

The smell of rotting bodies wafted through the command post of the relief effort, half-a-mile from the landslide site.

Under the glare of generator-powered lights, a multinational group of troops and technicians worked into the night with shovels, rescue dogs and high-tech gear, including sound- and heat-detection equipment.

Some officials suggested leaving the village as a massive cemetery because digging out the bodies was too difficult and dangerous. Some unidentified bodies were buried in mass graves.

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