Search teams dig, but no signs of life at Philippines landslide

Searchers burrowing with shovels at the site of a school buried in a massive landslide have no indications that anyone survived the disaster, a Philippine military official said today.

“There is no sign of life so far,” Lt. Col. Raul Farnacio said. He said the school was buried in up to 115 feet of mud and that recovery teams had dug about halfway down to the building.

Early today, dozens of haggard US Marines and Philippine soldiers resumed digging in a huge sea of mud covering the farming village of Guinsaugon. Taiwanese experts with sound-detecting equipment and 60 Malaysians, including medics, soldiers and firefighters, joined the search for survivors.

The teams worked on clearing a road of boulders and digging around the school building where an estimated 250 to 300 students were in class when a mountain slope collapsed and enveloped the town on Friday.

“We have not found anything at this point,” said US Marine Lt. Ryan Rogers, commander of the US contingent at the school site. The search began in heavy rain that had stopped by midday.

Forecasts called for intermittent rain over the next 24 hours, followed by improving weather.

Philippine military officials had said they feared 1,800 people, virtually the entire population of Guinsaugon, died in the disaster. But Governor Rosette Lerias of Southern Leyte province said 72 people were confirmed dead and 928 were missing. National disaster officials in Manila said the number of missing was 1,350, including 246 schoolchildren.

There was no immediate explanation for the discrepancy in the numbers.

Official figures of how many survivors were pulled from the mud on Friday have also differed, with counts ranging from 20 to 57.

Hopes of finding more survivors seemed remote because the village was inundated by a dense wall of mud and rock, making it unlikely that many air pockets would form beneath the sodden surface.

Trapped survivors of past landslides or earthquakes sometimes hold out for days, communicating with search parties by calling out or tapping on rocks. But the recovery teams at Guinsaugon, slowed by wet conditions, shifting earth and fears of fresh landslides, have heard no signs of life.

The Taiwanese rescuers brought three sonar machines in an attempt to detect life at the site of the school. The devices can detect body heat and are equipped with live video feed through metres of fibre optic cable.

Handlers and three sniffer dogs from Spain’s canine association left Manila for the disaster zone today.

Two shiploads of US Marines, diverted from joint military exercises elsewhere in the Philippines, joined rescue efforts yesterday. Helicopters from the US ships off Leyte island ferried men and supplies to the site, and Marines surveyed roads and bridges to see if they could support the weight of heavy military vehicles and equipment.

Dozens of Marines spent the night in sleeping bags near the disaster site, and hundreds more were expected to converge on the area.

Thirty bodies, most of them unclaimed and unidentified, were placed in a mass grave yesterday.

Under a light drizzle, a Roman Catholic priest sprinkled holy water on the bodies, some wrapped in bags and others placed in cheap wooden coffins, and said a prayer. Volunteers lowered the bodies to men who placed them side by side at the bottom of the grave.

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