Mudslide victims buried in mass grave
GUINSAUGON, Philippines ” Marine Capt. Jeff O’Donnell lost his home in New Orleans to Hurricane Katrina, but he was still shaken by the devastation left by a river of mud that smashed over this once bustling farming village.
“This is my first time to see anything like this,” O’Donnell said Sunday after arriving with the first group of U.S. Marines sent to aid Filipino teams digging through muck up to 30 feet as hope for finding survivors rapidly faded.
Only about two dozen battered, dazed people have been rescued from the debris left by Friday’s disaster, which left some 1,800 people missing and presumed dead.
A woman who escaped the destruction said the first inkling of the calamity was a mild shaking of the ground, followed by a loud boom and a roar that sounded like many airplanes.
“I looked up to the mountain and I saw the ground and boulders rushing down,” said Alicia Miravalles.
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She said she ran across her family’s rice field ahead of the wall of mud and boulders. “I thought I was dead. If the landslide did not stop, I would really be dead now.”
Florencio Libaton, an injured villager, told of being caught by the soupy mush while trying to flee with his wife. He said he was rolled and tossed among boulders and tree trunks that were swept down the adjacent mountainside.
“I said, ‘God, is this how we are going to die?”‘ Libaton recalled at Anahawan District Hospital, where he and 20 other injured were taken.
Rescuers found him pinned under a tree trunk and mud. “I yelled out, ‘Help! Help! Then they pulled me out after digging with their hands,” he said.
There was no sign of Libaton’s wife, Porfiria. He feared he also lost his children ” a son and two daughters ” when the mud buried the village’s elementary school, along with 250 to 300 children and teachers.
Weary search teams found more than a dozen bodies Sunday, raising the number of confirmed deaths to 72. With no one left to claim the dead and bodies quickly starting to decompose in the tropical heat, officials ordered them buried in mass graves.
At a cemetery five miles from Guinsaugon, a Roman Catholic priest sprinkled holy water on 30 bodies, some wrapped in bags, others in cheap wooden coffins, then said a prayer through a mask worn to filter out the stench.
Volunteers lowered the bodies to men who placed them side by side at the bottom of the grave.
The only witnesses were local health officials, the provincial governor, some of her staff and a few nearby residents. Some evacuees from the landslide watched from the window of a nearby Catholic school.
On Monday, dozens of haggard U.S. Marines and Philippine soldiers resumed digging in the sea of mud covering the village.
In the capital, President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo said Sunday that “all the efforts of our government continue and will not stop while there is hope to find survivors.” But those hopes faded each hour as no more survivors were found for a second straight day.
Two shiploads of U.S. Marines arrived off Leyte island Sunday to help, diverted from military exercises elsewhere in the Philippines. A unit of 32 started digging at the school, and a total of 200 Marines had come ashore by sunset. Hundreds more were expected Monday.
Communist rebels active elsewhere on Leyte warned the U.S. troops not to stray into insurgent zones, but said they would not attack unless provoked. The New People’s Army rebels have been waging a rebellion since the late 1960s.
The hunt for survivors focused on the school after unconfirmed reports circulated that some of those inside had sent text messages to loved ones after the mountainside collapsed following two weeks of heavy rains.
Officials had said 57 survivors were pulled from the mud Friday, but on Sunday lowered the number to 20 without explanation.
Spirits rose briefly at the school site Sunday when Malaysian soldiers with sound-detecting gear reported movement. But with nothing else to indicate life, they had to admit the noise could have been settling mud.
A Taiwanese team of 32 rescue workers with heat-sensing equipment arrived to aid the desperate search for survivors.
Philippine Lt. Col. Raul Farnacio said teams using search dogs also were digging around the village hall, where about 300 people were at a women’s conference when the mudslide hit.
In Geneva, the International Red Cross appealed for $1.5 million to buy materials for temporary shelters and health and cooking items.
Meanwhile, a landslide killed five people on another Philippines island hundreds of miles away, but it was not immediately clear what caused it.
Maj. Gamal Hayudini of the military’s Southern Command said the slide engulfed two houses in Zamboanga del Sur province’s Bayog town, 470 miles south of Manila. He said a woman was pulled out alive with a broken leg.
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.