Hundreds missing after landslide

Houses, school covered by up to 30 feet of mud in remote Philippine village

February 18, 2006|By RICHARD C. PADDOCK AND SOL VANZI | RICHARD C. PADDOCK AND SOL VANZI,LOS ANGELES TIMES

MANILA, Philippines -- As many as 1,800 villagers were missing today after a sea of mud crushed a remote mountain village on the Philippine island of Leyte, authorities said.

The mud was as deep as 30 feet in some areas, covering houses and an elementary school in the village of Guinsaugon. Rescuers who dug with their hands in the soft mud yesterday rescued about 80 people, many with broken limbs.

"There are no signs of life, no rooftops, no nothing," Rosette Lerias, governor of Southern Leyte province, said after visiting the scene.

A preschool teacher who was buried with his pupils at the school called his sister by cell phone to report that he and as many as 70 pupils were alive, radio station DZMM reported.

The teacher, identified as Rodel Letilla, could no longer be reached after 7 p.m. yesterday, probably because his cell phone battery had died. About 250 pupils and teachers were thought to have been in the school when the wall of mud hit yesterday morning.

Authorities said efforts to reach the school were hampered by mud that was like quicksand, but Philippine Air Force helicopters were to try to take rescuers to the site today.

Sen. Richard Gordon, chairman of the Philippine National Red Cross, said 19 bodies had been recovered from the village.

"The entire barrio had a population of 3,000, with 1,800 of them living in the worst-hit area and now considered missing," Gordon said.

About 35 survivors were being treated for injuries, he said.

The mudslide followed nearly two weeks of heavy rain in the central Philippine region about 420 miles southeast of Manila.

The area is known for its geological instability, and authorities had warned villagers to evacuate in recent days. When the rain appeared to be easing, however, many residents returned to their homes, Lerias said.

Some villagers and environmental activists blamed the slide on illegal logging from the 1970s to the mid-1990s. But authorities said vegetation had returned to the area and that trees slid down along with the mud.

Aerial footage of the scene showed a wasteland of mud and, in one spot, a pile of twisted corrugated-metal roofs.

"Our village is gone; everything was buried in mud," said survivor Eugene Pilo, whose family is missing. "All the people are gone."

Residents of the area reported hearing a loud crack just before the sea of mud descended on the village.

"It sounded like the mountain exploded, and the whole thing crumbled," said villager Dario Libatan, who lost his wife and three children. "I could not see any house standing anymore."

Mud-covered survivors who were pulled from the mud yesterday were ferried across a stream in the blade of a bulldozer before being taken by ambulance to a clinic.

The mud was so soft that heavy equipment could not be used and rescuers sometimes sank into the muck up to their waists. Search efforts were halted at dusk yesterday because there was no electricity.

"We will try to resume search and rescue efforts this morning, but I am not very optimistic because it rained heavily all night, bringing down more mud and water from the mountains," Lerias said early today. "Yesterday, it was very difficult for us to reach the victims because our legs were sinking in the soft soil covering the buried homes."

President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo went on national television soon after the slide to promise the full resources of the Philippine government.

"Help is on the way," the president said. "It will come by land, sea and air."

The U.S. military, which is conducting exercises in the southern Philippines, dispatched the aircraft carrier USS Essex and the landing ship USS Harper's Ferry to the area to provide medical aid and other assistance. Ground forces also were available to help, the Pentagon said.

In November 1991, about 6,000 people were killed on Leyte in floods and landslides triggered by a tropical storm. In December 2003, 133 people died in floods and mudslides on the island.

Last weekend, seven road workers died in a landslide after falling into a 150-foot deep ravine in the mountain town of Sogod on Leyte.

Richard C. Paddock is a reporter for the Los Angeles Times. Special correspondent Sol Vanzi and wire reports contributed to this article.

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