February 21, 2006

Stubborn hope sustains rescuers in Filipino village

By Bobby Ranoco and Pedro Uchi

GUINSAUGON, Philippines (Reuters) - Rescue workers battled
through sludge and rubble on Tuesday, buoyed by scratching
noises and sounds picked up near where a packed elementary
school was buried under meters of mud in a deadly Philippine

Friday's devastating landslide, triggered by five times the
region's normal rainfall over two weeks, obliterated the remote
farming community of Guinsaugon, about 675 km (420 miles)
southeast of Manila.

So far, 85 bodies have been recovered and relatives have
reported 1,371 people still missing. They are believed trapped
under a wash of mud, up to 40 meters deep in some places.

Rescuers, including U.S. Marines dispatched from annual
Philippine military exercises, have focused efforts on the
school after unconfirmed reports that some of the 253 people
trapped inside had sent desperate text messages on Friday.

Late on Monday, seismic equipment picked up scratching
noises and rhythmic sounds close to the school.

There were no reports of subterranean noise on Tuesday, but
provincial governor Rosette Lerias refused to give up hope.

"For as long as the rescuers who are on the ground, who are
the experts in what they are doing, say that 'we will
continue,' then we will support them," she told a news
conference carried live on television.

Rescue conditions are treacherous. Emergency workers from
Taiwan, Spain and Malaysia, along with Philippine soldiers and
miners, have had to contend with deep, shifting mud which
threatens to swallow them in places.

Soldiers are starting to pave a path for more

Mass burials, conducted with holy water and lime powder,
have already taken place to prevent disease spreading in the
hot, wet conditions.

Officials have talked about eventually closing off the
landslide area and leaving it as a mass burial ground.


In hospital, survivors told of jumping from roofs to escape
the torrent of mud. One six-year-old girl survived by clinging
to a coconut tree.

In Manila, commentators complained about the country's lack
of preparation for natural disasters despite its position on
the Pacific Ring of Fire, a zone of frequent earthquakes and
volcanic eruptions.

Government vulcanologists reminded residents in central
Philippines on Tuesday not to venture near the 2,460-meter
(8,000-foot) Mayon volcano after their instruments detected
successive low-volcanic quakes since Monday.

"This is very significant," Ed Laguerta, resident
vulcanologist of the government in the Bicol region, said. "A
possible explosion may occur anytime." Mayon last erupted in
July 2001.

U.S. President George W. Bush rang President Gloria
Macapagal Arroyo on Monday to express sympathy for the

The United States plans to send up to 3,000 of the 5,000
U.S, soldiers and sailors taking part in annual war games in
the southern Philippines to help in the relief effort.

The Philippines is usually hit by about 20 typhoons each
year, with residents and environmental groups often blaming
illegal logging or mining for compounding the damage.

But in a country where most of the 86 million people are
Roman Catholic, commentators, officials and even survivors also
said the landslide was God's will.

The province of Leyte, where Guinsaugon is located, is no
stranger to disaster. In 1991, more than 5,000 people died in
floods triggered by a typhoon.

(Additional reporting by Dolly Aglay in Manila)