Tue, Dec 23, 2003 - Page 5 News List

Whole families found buried together in mudslides

TRAGEDY Unprecedented rainfall in the Philippines saturated the ground to such an extent that it `exploded,' leaving at least 89 people dead and 125 missing

AP , LILOAN, PHILIPPINES

Searchers have dug up the bodies of entire families huddled together following mudslides in eastern Philippines, where the official toll rose yesterday to at least 89 dead with more than 125 missing.

Of those killed, at least 71 were in the central province of Southern Leyte, according to the National Disaster Coordinating Council. Casualty figures were expected to rise. Regional officials reported more bodies found than in the central government's official count.

Television footage showed bodies of a family of five -- mother, father and their children aged 5, 12 and 14 -- lying in the mud and rain of their collapsed house in Liloan. Rescuers used ropes to pull out the corpses, which were later washed, wrapped in plastic sheets and buried in wooden coffins.

"We found families huddled together, other families were scattered," a rescuer told ABS-CBN TV.

Illegal logging has been blamed for the disaster, which was triggered by six days of pounding rains in six provinces near the Pacific Ocean late Friday to early Saturday.

President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo said most affected areas were near over-logged hills and mountains.

However, Environment Secretary Elisea Gozun said forests had been replaced by coconut plantations in the 1920s and 1930s, noting that coconut trees do not hold the soil as well as deep-rooted trees.

Leyte province's Governor Ro-sette Lerias said unprecedented rainfall saturated the ground so much that it "exploded," sending tons of mud and debris down hillsides and onto homes as villagers slept.

The weather bureau said that Friday's rainfall was 556mm -- more than the average for the whole month of December.

Bad weather, blocked roads and downed power and telephone lines hampered rescuers.

One survivor, a woman identified as Teresita, said she was buried briefly in her home, where rescuers retrieved the body of her 15-year-old daughter Irene late Sunday.

"If my daughter is dead, then I want to die too," the woman said, weeping.

In one rural, candlelit morgue, notes with the scrawled names of the victims were placed on coffins. Elsewhere, survivors opened cas-kets to see if they contained missing relatives.

Television footage showed a mud-splattered man desperately trying to dig out a body with a crowbar while a companion tried to pull it from the muck with his hands.

Lerias said the mountainside village of Punta, with 360 residents, was a scene of mayhem. More than half of its 83 houses were destroyed or buried.

"There was mud all over. You couldn't see anything but rooftops with the houses submerged in mud. There's debris, wood, old clothes, kitchen utensils strewn all around," Lerias said. "The rescuers were using heavy equipment, and in one spot they dug up the hand of a child."

Lerias said an 89-year-old man and 14-year-old girl were rescued. Both apparently survived in an air pocket.

She called for the rescue operation to continue. "Even saving one or two would be worth all the effort," she said.

Rescuers have found 49 bodies in Punta. Several villagers who sought shelter in a house were killed when it was engulfed by mud, she said.

A local parish priest said the bodies, collected at a local gymnasium, would soon be buried in a mass grave as a precaution against disease.

Lerias said at least three villages on islands were cut off from rescuers. Huge waves had forced her boat to turn back as she approached a village in the San Ricardo area.

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