LILOAN, Philippines – Rescuers counted at least 127 dead and searched for dozens more missing Monday from devastating weekend mudslides in the eastern and southern Philippines, as sporadic rains and strong sea waves hampered recovery efforts.
President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo (search) asked the United States to send Chinook helicopters to help in rescue operations, as several hard-hit villages have not yet been reached.
Authorities blamed illegal logging for the disaster, which was triggered by six days of pounding rains in provinces near the Pacific Ocean late Friday to early Saturday.
Leyte province's Gov. Rosette Lerias said the rainfall saturated the eroded ground so much that it "exploded," sending tons of mud and debris down hillsides and onto homes as villagers slept.
In a separate disaster, also in the southern Philippines, rescuers searched for a ferry not heard of since it radioed that it was sinking at sea with 75 people aboard on Sunday.
Of those killed in the mudslides, at least 109 were in the central province of Southern Leyte (search), Vice Governor Eva Tomol told The Associated Press. Casualty figures were expected to rise, because rescue teams still haven't reached all the devastated villages.
In San Francisco's village of Punta, where 77 died and 23 were missing out of its 360 residents, bodies were piled up close to the sea shore as mechanical diggers combed the earth for more victims buried in the mud that hit the area on late Friday and Saturday.
More than half of its 83 houses were destroyed or buried.
Fisherman Marciano Maquinano said he lost his entire family — his wife and three children — and six other relatives. He said he was fishing Friday night, unaware of the tragedy in Punta.
"I was out at sea and when I returned, it was over," he said.
His eyes bloodshot from weeping, he lit candles and kneeled beside makeshift plywood coffins scrawled with the names of his wife and children in white chalk.
Punta residents described hearing what sounded like a "crack of thunder" seconds before the mudslides cascaded down hillsides to their village. From the air, a large chunk of a hill appeared to have been gnawed off.
The debris from the hill — uprooted coconut trees with their fruits still hanging — pushed everything in its path out to the sea. Several bodies were found floating near Camiguin island, 80 miles away.
There was so much debris in Punta that the shoreline jutted out several yards into the sea.
Lerias said an 89-year-old man and 14-year-old girl were rescued. Both apparently survived in an air pocket. Several villagers who sought shelter in a house were killed when it was engulfed by mud, she said.
Several villages on the island were still cut off from rescuers. For a second day, huge waves forced the governor's boat to turn back from Pinut-an in San Ricardo town, on the opposite side of the island from San Francisco.
Lerias wept out of frustration, her deputy said on the telephone, and sent one of her staff, Lloyd Aviera, on a dinghy closer to the shore, from where he swam the rest of the way. He reported back that Pinut-an "was like one big river bed. Of the church, only the cross on top of the steeple was visible. Everything is rubble."
Television footage showed bodies of a family of five — mother, father and their children aged 5, 12 and 14 — lying in the mud and rain of their collapsed house in Liloan, where a total of 22 people died. Rescuers used ropes to pull out the corpses, which were later washed, wrapped in plastic sheets and buried in wooden coffins.
"We found families huddled together, other families were scattered," a rescuer told ABS-CBN TV.
The National Disaster Coordinating Council also reported four people drowned in floodwaters and 14 killed in landslides in the northeastern part of the main southern island of Mindanao, close to Leyte, over the weekend. Close to 20,000 people were evacuated.
The weather bureau said Friday's rainfall was 21.89 inches — more than the average for the whole month of December.
Arroyo asked U.S. Ambassador Richard Ricciardone for Chinooks, the American military's all-weather troop and cargo helicopters, and thanked the U.S. government for its help. But on Monday, U.S. forces in Okinawa, Japan — where Arroyo said the helicopters would come from — said they'd heard of no plans to participate in rescue operations.
Also Monday, Pope John Paul II said he was "deeply saddened by the tragic loss of life" and prayed for the rescue workers, said the Vatican's nuncio in Manila, Archbishop Antonio Franco.
About 20 typhoons lash the Philippines each year and Friday's landslides were set off rainstorms generated by low-pressure areas moving in from the Pacific.
In November 1991, about 6,000 people were killed on Leyte island in floods and landslides triggered by a tropical storm.