Features

Mudslide vigil

Philippines | U.S. Marines joined international rescuers in a race against time

Issue: "Muddy Gras," March 4, 2006

The avalanche that thundered down on the Philippine hamlet of Guinsaugon "sounded like a thousand buffalo charging at you," eyewitnesses told Marine Corps Captain Burrell Parmer. "In two or three minutes the whole village was buried" under a blanket of mud, rocks, and boulders the size of cars.

On Feb. 17 the landslide buried as many as 1,100 villagers, including a school of 240 children and six teachers that was in session when the side of a jungle mountain collapsed in a torrent 100 acres broad and 90 feet deep.

Now, what once was a bargangay, or satellite village, outside the town of St. Bernard on south Leyte Island is a bristling search-and-rescue zone. U.S. marines from the 3rd Marine Expeditionary Unit, sailors from the USS Essex and USS Harpers Ferry, and airmen from Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines and Anderson Air Force Base in Guam are working alongside Philippine armed forces, the Red Cross, and rescue workers from Malaysia and other Pacific islands.

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Amid the chop of helicopter blades, the clang of shovels, and the grind of backhoes, Mr. Parmer, a Marine Corps public affairs officer, spoke with WORLD via cell phone from the site on Feb. 21. "We just got some good news!" he said, shouting to be heard over the din. "The U.S. military just contracted for a massive drill to come and try to penetrate the rubble and look for survivors!"

So far none has been found. On Feb. 19 hope briefly buoyed grieving relatives when workers reported that underground sensing gear had picked up sounds coming from beneath the rubble. Since then they have heard only silence.

American forces had been in the area for an exercise when the mountain collapsed, and they immediately responded to the Philippine government's call for help, flying in workers, generators, flood lights, water purifiers, medicines, and body bags. The United States also pledged 500 shovels and 100 pick axes. But before real shovels arrived, the marines started digging with their standard-issue "entrenching tools," collapsible spades not much bigger than garden trowels.

"They didn't want to wait around," Mr. Parmer said. "They were out there giving it their all."

Five to six rain showers a day have hampered the rescue effort, alternately drizzling, then drenching, the tropical landscape of palms and rice paddies and creating a heavy, slogging mud. On Feb. 22, Taiwanese workers found the bodies of three children and their schoolbooks, bringing the number of dead recovered to about 100.

International experts were set to meet that night to decide whether to call off the search. But Mr. Parmer said that every evening since the avalanche, provincial Gov. Rosette Lerias has given a press conference in which she refuses to do so. "She keeps pointing out that after a landslide in 2004, rescue workers found survivors 10 days out."

Neither are relatives and friends giving up hope, he added. "Tight family networks are part of the culture here. You can walk around [St. Bernard] at midnight and still hear the families inside their homes, praying together."

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