No survivors at primary school entombed in mud

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The Independent Online

Rescuers who reached the remains of a primary school buried in the Philippines mudslide have found no survivors. Search teams combed the area with sniffer dogs, and shouted and banged stones against boulders in the hope that survivors would hear, but there was no reply.

Volunteers who came to dig for survivors began to bury the dead yesterday, interring 50 bodies in a temporary mass grave to prevent the spread of disease.

The entire village of Guinsaugon was buried when the neighbouring mountain collapsed on Friday after two weeks of heavy rain. Only 72 bodies have been found but more than 1,800 people are still missing and feared dead beneath the mud.

Hopes were raised that some of the 253 children and teachers who were inside when the mudslide hit might be alive after unconfirmed rumours that some had sent text messages to their loved ones begging for help.

But it appeared rescuers had reached the school too late. Search work has been hampered by treacherous conditions, and the mud was as deep as 10 metres (32 feet) in places.

As well as the school, yesterday's search effort focused on the village hall, where some 300 people had gathered for a women's conference. Hundreds of houses have also been buried and so complete was the devastation that many locals had difficulty directing rescue workers to the sites of buildings.

No one has been found alive since Friday but hundreds of volunteers continued to arrive to help dig. Some 30 US Marines who were in the area for military exercises joined the search.

Conditions remained desperately difficult for rescuers and the Marines warned volunteers to tread carefully or risk drowning in the deep mud that could act like quicksand. Helicopters have been ferrying in equipment and supplies, but a no-fly zone has been ordered over the disaster site for fear down-draughts from the rotors could dislodge the mud. One survivor said the sound of the helicopters reminded him of the sound of the mudslide bearing down on his house. Florencio Libaton said he was resting at home when his wife ran in and said: "The mountain has collapsed."

He wanted to rush to the school to rescue his three children, but it had already been buried. With the mudslide bearing down on them, he and his wife ran, but he lost hold of her and now she is missing too. Mr Libaton was among the few survivors pulled from the mud. The authorities said yesterday only 20 survivors had been found, down from the 57 reported on Friday. They included a girl who clung to the trunk of a coconut palm.

"All the efforts of our government continue and will not stop while there is hope to find survivors," President Gloria Arroyo said. "The nation is grateful for the continued prayers and concern, help from our world allies."

Experts believe the mudslide was caused by 27 inches of rain over the past two weeks, which had left the soil saturated with water. Residents of the area have angrily blamed illegal logging for causing the disaster.