Hopes fade for missing Philippines landslide victims

Volunteers with two sniffer dogs dug around a mud-covered elementary school today but found no signs that any of the 250-300 children and teachers inside were still alive two days after a massive landslide.

Volunteers with two sniffer dogs dug around a mud-covered elementary school today but found no signs that any of the 250-300 children and teachers inside were still alive two days after a massive landslide.

Weary search teams recovered another 14 bodies from Guinsaugon, a farming village where up to 1,800 people died when they were buried in mud up to 30 feet deep on Friday. Five people were killed in a landslide elsewhere in the Philippines.

The hunt for survivors focused on the school, after unconfirmed reports circulated that some of those inside sent text messages to loved ones after an adjacent mountain collapsed following two weeks of heavy rains.

Ian Degamo, with an aid group called Maayo, was digging there with about 15 other volunteers aided by two sniffer dogs from the Red Cross.

“The dogs smelled something. We started to dig, but there was nothing,” Degamo said dejectedly.

A damage assessment team of up to 30 armed US Marines based in Okinawa, Japan, visited Guinsaugon, a village where most of the population of more than 1,800 people were feared buried beneath a massive pile of mud and debris.

More than 30 US Marines then joined the search around the school, vowing to dig through the night with flashlights.

They were part of a 1,000-strong Marine contingent on the USS Essex and the USS Harper’s Ferry who recently arrived for joint military exercises and were diverted at the Philippines’ request. The Americans set up one water-purfication pump and were working on another.

The confirmed death toll was 72, but hopes of finding survivors were fading quickly in Guinsaugon.

Five people were killed last night when another landslide swamped two houses in Bayog town in Zamboanga del Sur province, hundreds of miles away, said Maj. Gamal Hayudini of the military’s Southern Command. A women was pulled out alive with a broken leg.

With entire families wiped out in Guinsaugon, officials held a mass burial for 50 unidentified bodies that were decomposing quickly in the tropical conditions.

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

Philippine Lt. Col. Raul Farnacio said searchers were focusing on the buried elementary school, but that teams using police search dogs also were digging around the village hall, where about 300 people had been attending a women’s conference.

“All the efforts of our government continue and will not stop while there is hope to find survivors,” President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo said. “The nation is grateful for the continued prayers and concern, help from our world allies.”

Referring to residents’ claims that illegal logging contributed to the tragedy, Arroyo said: “Let us link arms to preserve our environment and protect what remains of it for our next generation.”

Rescue workers treaded carefully to avoid becoming casualties themselves as the uneasy mud settled.

A no-fly zone was established over the disaster area out of fears that powerful downwinds from helicopters could dislodge the mud. Rescue workers shouted and banged on boulders with stones in hopes that survivors would hear. There was only silence.

Survivors and relatives of the missing had trouble figuring out where houses once stood. The area has been drenched by 27 inches of rain over the last two weeks.

Officials said 57 people were plucked alive from the mud on Friday, but on Sunday lowered the figure to 20. There was no immediate explanation for the discrepancy.

A Taiwanese team of 32 rescue workers with heat-sensing equipment arrived to help in the desperate search for survivors.

In Geneva, the International Red Cross appealed for two million Swiss francs (€1.3m) to buy temporary shelter materials and other emergency health and cooking items.

Many residents of the landslide area were evacuated last week because of the threat of landslides or flooding following 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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