GUINSAUGON, Philippines – Hoping for a miracle, rescue workers in the Philippines continued searching for survivors today in an elementary school that was swamped by Friday’s massive landslide, which buried this town and killed some 1,800 people.
No more survivors were found, however, and reports that students and teachers had sent cell phone text messages from inside went unconfirmed, leaving the search effort dispirited.
Fearing more landslides, 11 villages were evacuated as U.S. military ships steamed to the scene. A team of up to 30 U.S. Marines based in Okinawa, Japan, was already at the site.
Police dogs arrived in the sunshine today after days of constant rain that raised fears of more landslides and hampered efforts to rescue possible survivors. Still, low clouds and thin mist suggested that rain could return.
The landslide, which followed two weeks of heavy rains, was believed to have killed nearly every man, woman and child in the farming village of Guinsaugon, which was covered with mud up to 30 feet deep.
The situation was so delicate that a no-fly zone was established over the area out of concern that blasts of air from helicopter rotors could send the mud oozing again.
Medical supplies and excavation equipment were reaching the area on Leyte island, and U.S. military ships were expected later today with 1,000 Marines to add to the aid effort. But with no survivors found Saturday, it appeared the operation would be recovery instead of relief.
Only 57 people were plucked from the mud on Friday out of Guinsaugon’s population of 1,857. An estimated 56 bodies were recovered.
Officials suspended the search operation after dark Saturday, with the footing too dangerous and no floodlights available to illuminate the massive mud field, which was surrounded by a shallow stream.
Philippines President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo mentioned reports about cell phone messages sent by survivors in the swamped school during a televised staff meeting on the disaster. The reports gave impetus to the military to dispatch 60 soldiers to the scene.
But as day turned to night, no signs of life were found, and officials admitted they had been unable to confirm the existence of any text messages from survivors.
Staff Sgt. Bienvenido Plaza of the Air Force Rescue Group said rescue workers shouted and used stones to bang on boulders in hopes that survivors would hear. There was only silence, he said.
Still, provincial Gov. Rosette Lerias said she was hoping for “a miracle.”
“I would like to believe it’s true,” she said. “I am giving it the benefit of the doubt, and that is why we are concentrating on the school building.”
Not much else was left to concentrate on.
Survivors and relatives of the missing had trouble even figuring out where houses had stood in the 100-acre stretch of mud. Soldiers, firefighters and volunteers were given sketches of the village as was just days ago, but all landmarks had been wiped away.
“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.”
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,” he said.
As news of the scale of the devastation reached international shores, emergency supplies, financial aid and offers of condolences poured in.
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.