GUINSAUGON, Philippines – Rescue workers searched a sea of mud in vain Saturday for survivors of a landslide that killed up to 1,800 people. People fled nearby villages, heeding warnings that the disaster threatened to repeat itself.
Two U.S. warships and 1,000 Marines steamed toward the disaster scene on Leyte island in the eastern Philippines. They were expected to arrive early Sunday.
Eleven villages were evacuated, all in the area of what used to be Guinsaugon. The farming community was wiped out Friday when half a mountain came crashing down after two weeks of torrential rain.
Hopes faded for finding anyone else alive in the 100-acre stretch of mud that was 30 feet deep in places. Only 57 people had been rescued — none so far Saturday — out of a population of 1,857. At least 55 bodies had been found, and a child who originally survived died overnight from head injuries.
Efforts focused on a swamped elementary school, with President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo citing unconfirmed reports that some of the 250 students and teachers sent cell phone text messages to relatives saying they had survived.
Sixty soldiers were dispatched to the scene in the morning, but found nothing before they were forced to give up for the night. Sniffer dogs were to be brought in Sunday in a final effort to find life in the school.
Rosette Lerias, governor of Southern Leyte province, said she was hoping for "a miracle" but that no official had been able to confirm any messages had been sent from the mud-covered school.
The search was complicated by heavy downpours, the threat that the adjacent mountain remained unstable and the possibility that troops and firefighters could get sucked down into the soft, shifting mud.
The situation was so dangerous that most would-be volunteers were kept out of the area, and a no-fly zone was established over the site because of fears that helicopters' downwash could set off a fresh landslide. Weather forecasts predicted more rain over the weekend.
Survivors had a tough time figuring out where houses used to be as there were few traces of them. Sketches of what the village used to look like didn't help much.
"It's hard to find the houses now," said Eunerio Bagaipo, a 42-year-old farmer who lost two brothers, almost 20 nieces and nephews and a number of in-laws. "There is nothing now, just earth and mud."
Eleven nearby villages were evacuated, Lerias said. The area, which is prone to landslides and flooding, has been drenched by 27 inches of rain over the last two weeks.
Lt. Col. Raul Farnacio, the highest-ranking military officer at the scene, said troops only were digging where they saw clear evidence of bodies.
"We can only focus on the surface; we cannot go too deep," he said.
Army Capt. Edmund Abella called the conditions extremely hazardous.
"A few minutes ago, mounds of earth came down from the mountain again with the rain and rescuers ran away to safety," Abella said.
Low clouds hung over the area, obscuring the mountain that disintegrated Friday morning, swallowing the village's 375 homes and school.
Rescue workers trudged slowly through the sludge. Governor Lerias asked for people to dig by hand, saying the mud was too soft for heavy equipment.
Survivors blamed illegal logging for contributing to the disaster. But the international Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies blamed a combination of the weather and the type of trees prevalent in the area.
"The remote coastal area of southern Leyte ... is heavily forested with coconut trees," the Red Cross said from Geneva. "They have shallow roots, which can be easily dislodged after heavy rains, causing the land to become unstable."
Helicopter pilot Leo Dimaala estimated that half the mountain collapsed and continued to shed mud and boulders onto the rice paddies at the base.
The Red Cross appealed for $1.5 million to buy temporary shelter materials and other emergency health and cooking items.
Relief planes headed in with food and water, as well as sniffer dogs and search equipment.
The USS Essex and the USS Harper's Ferry, along with 17 helicopters and 1,000 U.S. Marines, were diverted to the scene from planned joint exercises and were expected to arrive at daybreak Sunday.
U.S. Marine Capt. Burrel Parmer, a spokesman for the exercises, said a U.S. humanitarian assistance survey team was assessing the disaster area.
Many residents of the landslide area were evacuated last week due to the threat of landslides or flooding following the heavy rains, but had started returning home when the rains let up and days turned sunny.
In 1944, the waters off Leyte island became the scene of the biggest naval battle in history, when U.S. Gen. Douglas MacArthur fulfilled his famed vow "I shall return" and routed Japanese forces occupying the Philippines.
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.