Published April 24, 2011
PANTUKAN, Philippines – Philippine officials discovered a dangerous crack Sunday in a mountain hit by a deadly landslide last week and want troops to force dozens of illegal gold miners to leave before another disaster strikes their remote southern village.
Environment and Natural Resources Secretary Ramon Paje said he and other officials discovered the 230-foot (70-meter) -long fissure on a mountain slope above Kingking village during an aerial survey. A portion of the slope along the crack collapsed after a downpour Friday and buried shanties, bunkhouses and tents below, leaving at least five dead and 17 missing.
Soldiers, police and fellow miners resumed a search for the missing Sunday amid sagging hopes that any more survivors could be pulled out from about 100 feet (30 meters) of mud, rocks and debris that covered at least 2.5 acres (one hectare) of Kingking in Compostela Valley province, officials said.
All the missing have been identified, but it's possible there were unreported transient miners who were entombed, provincial police chief Senior Supt. Aaron Aquino said.
About 13 people have been rescued from the muck since Friday.
Unstable land along two-thirds of the deep fissure could collapse with the next heavy rain, which could saturate it with water, then unleash a deadly avalanche down to about 30 shanties and bunkhouses still inhabited by gold miners, Paje said.
"It's really critical," Paje told The Associated Press by telephone from Pantukan. "That mountain slope is highly susceptible to another landslide."
Paje said he would discuss with provincial, military and police officials how the gold miners could be evacuated immediately out of harm's way in the village in Pantukan, about 580 miles (930 kilometers) southeast of Manila.
Interior Secretary Jesse Robredo, who also flew to Pantukan, said authorities would forcibly move the gold miners from high-risk areas if they do not heed an appeal to relocate early this week.
Despite the danger, hundreds of impoverished villagers have dug for gold in narrow, dangerous shafts in far-flung villages like Kingking for years. Many have ignored warnings and defied occasional government crackdowns on illegal mining by the undermanned military and police in the communist rebel-infested region.
"They tell us they would rather die in a disaster than die of hunger," Pantukan Mayor Celso Sarenas said.
Rico Clase, who escaped death by clawing his way out of a hut buried in Friday's mudslide, said he would return to the disaster-prone area and resume gold mining. As a grade school dropout, he said he knows no other way to escape from poverty. A fellow miner, who slept beside him in the hut, remains missing.
"My companion told me he wanted to start digging early so he went to sleep ahead of me," the badly bruised Clase said by phone from his hospital bed. "They haven't found him."
Paje said he and other Cabinet members are under orders from President Benigno Aquino III to take steps to prevent more deaths in the gold-mining region.
"The government has the power to carry out a forced evacuation when the danger is really high," Paje said.
Friday's landslide buried more than a dozen shanties, bunkhouses and tents where gold miners stayed, some with their families, police said.
A similar landslide killed 26 people in a Pantukan village in 2009, police said.
Associated Press writer Jim Gomez in Manila contributed to this report.