GUINSAUGON, Philippines, AP -Weary rescue teams recovered only bodies Sunday at a Philippine village engulfed by a landslide, fearful of sinking beneath the unstable mud and losing hope in the search for survivors.
No one has been found alive since Friday, when a mountain slope collapsed on the farming village of Guinsaugon. Nearly its entire population — 1,857 — was feared dead.
Officials had said 57 survivors were pulled from the mud Friday, but on Sunday lowered the number to 20, without immediately providing an explanation. At least 72 bodies have been recovered — including 14 on Sunday.
Volunteers with two sniffer dogs digging around an entombed elementary school found no signs that any of the 250-300 children and teachers inside were alive. The hunt for survivors focused on the school because of unconfirmed reports some inside had sent text messages to loved ones. Teams were also digging around the site of the village hall, where about 300 people had been attending a women’s conference.
“The dogs smelled something. We started to dig, but there was nothing,” said Ian Degamo, a rescuer digging with another 14 volunteers and the two dogs from the Red Cross.
About 32 U.S. Marines in combat pants and shirts helped with the digging. They were from U.S. military ships carrying 1,000 Marines who arrived at Leyte island in eastern Philippines, diverted from planned joint exercises to help with recovery efforts. Another 30 Marines, based in Okinawa, Japan, were at the site to assess relief needs.
Communist rebels who are active on Leyte warned U.S. troops not to stray into insurgent zones, but assured they would not attack unless provoked. The New People’s Army rebels have been waging a Marxist rebellion since the late 1960s.
“The NPAs, if they would not be provoked, would not take steps against them, especially in this time of calamity,” said rebel spokesman Gregorio Rosal.
Another landslide killed five people on another island hundreds of miles away, said Maj. Gamal Hayudini of the military’s Southern Command. The landslide engulfed two houses in Zamboanga del Sur province’s Bayog town, 470 miles south of Manila, he said. A woman was pulled out alive with a broken leg. It was not immediately clear what caused the landslide.
In Guinsaugon, police dogs arrived in the sunshine Sunday after days of constant rain that raised fears of more landslides and hampered efforts to rescue any survivors. Still, low clouds and thin mist suggested that rain could return.
Rescue workers had been warned to tread carefully or risk becoming casualties themselves as the uneasy mud settled, 30 feet deep in some areas. With entire families wiped out, officials were talking about a mass burial for unclaimed bodies.
The situation was so delicate that a no-fly zone was established over the area out of concern that blasts of air from the helicopters’ rotors could send the mud oozing again in Guinsaugon, about 400 miles southeast of the capital, Manila.
Philippine Lt. Col. Raul Farnacio said searchers were focusing on the elementary school, where 240 to 300 students and at least six teachers were caught in the avalanche of mud. Rescue workers shouted and banged on boulders with stones in hopes that survivors would hear. There was only silence.
“All the efforts of our government continue and will not stop while there is hope to find survivors,” President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo said. “The nation is grateful for the continued prayers and concern, help from our world allies.”
Addressing residents’ claims that illegal logging contributed to the tragedy, Arroyo said: “Let us link arms to preserve our environment and protect what remains of it for our next generation.”
Survivors had trouble figuring out where houses once stood in the 100-acre stretch of mud. The area has been drenched by 27 inches of rain over the last two weeks.
A Taiwanese team of 32 rescue workers with heat-sensing equipment arrived to help, while in Geneva, the International Red Cross appealed for $1.5 million to buy temporary shelter materials and other emergency health and cooking items.
Many residents of the landslide area were evacuated last week because of the threat of landslides or flooding following heavy rains, but had started returning home when the days turned sunny.
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.