GUINSAUGON, Philippines (AFP) – The US military said it was committing up to 3,000 troops to help after a huge landslide in the Philippines, as the hunt for survivors became a grim search for bodies instead.
Foreign and local teams battled bad weather in the continuing search following Friday’s tragedy, picking their way carefully through dangerous mud under which some 1,400 people are feared buried.
Rescuers Monday located the site of a school believed to contain some 200 students and 40 teachers in the village of Guinsaugon on Leyte island.
“They have discovered a trace of the school building,” Joseph Chang, co-ordinator for a specialist Taiwan rescue team, told AFP, adding that crews have now pinpointed its location under tonnes of mud and rocks.
But Chang said he had no idea when rescuers might be able to dig down to it.
Ted Esguerra, head of a Philippine coastguard rescue team, said rescuers had heard Monday “rhythmic tapping sounds” from the site of the school. It was not clear what the noises might be and there were no immediate reports from other rescuers that sounds had been heard.
For the first time, work was set to continue overnight after generators were set up at the scene.
Rain which is churning up the already unstable ground had delayed efforts even to locate buried buildings, let alone uncover them.
“Yesterday we placed markers on an area which we thought was the school, using a triangulation method, but right now you can’t see the markers. It has changed drastically,” said Hector Reyes, team leader of the Philippine Canine Search and Rescue Team, earlier Monday.
“There’s still water under the rubble and it’s very dangerous. Anytime, any of the mounds could collapse.”
About 2,500 to 3,000 US troops, more than half the soldiers assigned to a joint anti-terrorism exercise with Philippine forces, were diverted to help the rescue, US Brigadier General Mastin Robeson announced in Manila.
He said up to 500 troops could be deployed in Guinsaugon, while the rest would man three ships to ferry relief supplies.
At the site of the obliterated village an advance force of US Marines, the Taiwanese team equipped with sonar and video equipment and a Malaysian unit joined Philippine teams in the search.
A carpet of mud and rocks, up to 30 metres (100 feet) deep in some places, covers a nine square kilometre (3.5 square mile) area. All that can be seen of the once vibrant farming village are a few sheets of roofing material and the tops of palm trees.
“It is unlikely anyone could have survived under 30 metres of mud for three days,” said one official, declining to be identified.
“There appears to be no sign of life at the moment. Any oxygen that may have been trapped in spaces may have been finished off.”
He said the search now is for bodies not survivors but added: “Manila would have to make that call.” Two officials in the area Sunday gave similar assessments.
The civil defense office said Monday afternoon that 1,350 people are missing. Eighty bodies have been recovered, said a military official at the scene.
The civil defense office said 434 people survived the disaster, including 19 who sustained injuries. The last survivors were pulled from the muck within hours of the tragedy and the 415 others were away from the village at the time.
A total of 1,551 people from nine other villages have been moved to evacuation centres for fear of further landslides in the mountainous area.
The tragedy has prompted an international outpouring of sympathy for the disaster-prone nation. Pope Benedict XVI on Sunday said he prayed for the victims, adding that “our hearts turn to all those suffering”.
The latest in a long list of aid shipments came from Singapore, which sent medicine, food, blankets, tents and other relief supplies.
Australia said it would send a small team of engineers to assist with damage assessment and reconstruction efforts after earlier pledging one million dollars (740,000 US) in aid.