'200 dead and 1,500 missing' in Philippines landslide

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A massive landslide in the eastern Philippines today buried hundreds of houses and a packed school. Red Cross officials estimated that 200 people were dead and 1,500 others missing.

The farming village of Guinsaugon on Leyte island, 420 miles southeast of Manila, was virtually wiped out, with only a few jumbles of corrugated steel sheeting left to show that the community of some 2,500 people ever existed.

Two other villages also were affected, and about 3,000 evacuees were at a municipal hall.

"We did not find injured people," said Ricky Estela, a crewman on a helicopter that flew a politician to the scene. "Most of them are dead and beneath the mud."

Sen. Richard Gordon, head of the Philippine Red Cross, made an international appeal for aid.

"There is no body count yet, it's our estimate," he said by telephone from Geneva, Switzerland. "We're mobilising rescue operations. This area is infamous for landslides."

Gordon appealed for US troops, currently in the country for a series of joint military exercises, to send heavy-lift helicopters to the landslide scene. A C-130 Philippine military transport plane was to fly to Leyte later Friday, carrying search equipment and a team of sniffer dogs.

A US military spokesman, Capt. Dennis Palmer, said American forces were ready to help as soon as they receive an official request from the Philippine government.

Anthony Golez, deputy administrator of the Office of Civil Defense, said Defense Secretary Avelino Cruz dispatched two rescue helicopters and two navy ships to the remote area, where about 200 rescue workers — including volunteers from nearby provinces — were trying to dig out survivors.

"We want to get a clearer picture of what happened and then also mobilize the army there," Golez added.

While the official death toll was only five, Southern Leyte province Gov. Rosette Lerias told radio DZBB that 500 houses in Guinsahugon village in St. Bernard town were feared buried after nonstop rains for two weeks. An elementary school was in session when the landslide struck around 9am local time.

"The ground has really been soaked because of the rain," Lerias said of the downpours that have been blamed on the La Nina weather phenomenon. "The trees were sliding down upright with the mud."

She said an area about half a square mile was covered in thick mud that remained unstable, affecting rescue efforts.

"Our communication line was cut because our people had to flee because the landslide appeared to be crawling," Lerias said.

Roger Mercado, who represents Southern Leyte, said the mud covered coconut trees in the area and damaged the national highway leading to the village.

"It was really so sudden," he said.

Provincial board member Eva Tomol said only three houses remained standing in the village, which had a population of about 2,500 and is 420 miles southeast of Manila. Six survivors were being treated at a hospital, she said.

"We are hoping that only 1,000 out of the estimated 2,500 residents of the village are missing," Tomol said. "That's the rough estimate of the mayor, based on the assumption that it's the mothers and the children who are left behind at home while the fathers work outside."

Lerias said many residents evacuated the area last week due to the threat of landslides or flooding, but had started returning home during increasingly sunny days, with the rains limited to evening downpours.

In November 1991, about 6,000 people were killed on Leyte in floods and landslides triggered by a tropical storm.

Last weekend, seven road construction workers died in a landslide after falling into a 150-foot-deep ravine in the mountain town of Sogod on Leyte.