- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 18, 2006

GUINSAUGON, Philippines — The village of Guinsaugon disappeared yesterday. And so did nearly every man, woman and child who lived in this eastern Philippines farming community of 1,857 persons.

Only a few jumbles of corrugated steel sheeting, sticking up from 30 feet of sludge, indicate Guinsaugon ever existed.

Rescue workers held little hope today of finding more survivors from a devastating landslide that sent a wall of mud and boulders tumbling down the mountain at a terrifying speed.

Lt. Col. Raul Farnacio, the highest-ranking military officer at the scene, estimated the death toll at about 1,800.

“We presume that more or less than 1,800 are feared dead,” Col. Farnacio said as search efforts resumed today in a drenching rain and high winds that made the task even more miserable.

Only 57 survivors have been found — none so far today — out of a population of 1,857. At least 24 bodies have been pulled from the mud.

The search was focusing on an elementary school amid unconfirmed reports that relatives of the 250 children and teachers had received cell phone text messages from survivors. Only one girl and a woman had been rescued alive nearby.

Many blamed persistent rains and illegal logging in Guinsaugon, about 400 miles east of the capital, Manila.

The logging “stopped around 10 years ago,” Roger Mercado, a member of Congress who represents the area, told Manila radio station DZBB. “But this is the effect of the logging in the past.”

Soldiers were being shuttled to the disaster zone in the shovels of bulldozers that carried them across a shallow stream. They were given sketches of the village so they could figure out approximately where the houses used to be.

Col. Farnacio said the troops were digging only where they saw clear evidence of bodies because of the danger that the soft, unstable mud could shift and claim new victims.

“We can only focus on the surface,” he said. “We cannot go too deep.”

Low clouds hung over the area, obscuring the mountain that disintegrated yesterday morning after two weeks of heavy rains, covering the village’s 375 homes and elementary school. Rescue workers trudged slowly through the sludge, stretchers and ambulances waiting for survivors or the bodies of victims.

Joining them was Dionisio Elmosora, a 42-year-old farmer who was looking for his wife and two sons.

“What’s important is for me to find them, even if they’re dead,” said Mr. Elmosora, his eyes bloodshot and his face grief-stricken. “I’ve not eaten since this thing happened.”

The landslide left Guinsaugon, which is on the southern part of Leyte island, looking like a giant patch of newly plowed land.

“Our village is gone, everything was buried in mud,” Eugene Pilo, who lost his family, told local media. “All the people are gone.”

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

Southern Leyte province Gov. Rosette Lerias said many residents evacuated the area last week because of the threat of landslides or flooding, but had started returning home during increasingly sunny days, with the rains limited to evening downpours.

Army Capt. Edmund Abella said he and about 30 soldiers were wading through waist-deep mud.

“It’s very difficult. We’re digging by hand. The place is so vast, and the mud is so thick,” Capt. Abella told the Associated Press by cell phone. “When we try to walk, we get stuck in the mud.”

He said the troops had just rescued a 43-year-old woman who “was crying and looking for her three nephews, but they were nowhere to be found.”

The International Red Cross started an emergency appeal for $1.5 million for relief operations.

The U.S. military dispatched at least two warships and other forces to the scene to provide medical assistance and other relief. The United States also is sending money requested by the Philippine government for search and rescue, White House spokesman Trent Duffy said. He did not say how much would be sent.

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