Sun, Feb 19, 2006 - Page 4 News List

Search teams face morbid task

DIGGING IN THE MUD Philippine soldiers and other rescuers dodged debris and were pelted by rain as they pulled corpses from the site of the massive mudslide


The soldiers stepped carefully yesterday, worried that the waist-deep mud deposited by the landslide could shift and pull them under.

Hidden boulders tripped them. Downpours pelted them. Mounds of fresh debris occasionally cascaded down from a nearby mountain, remnants of the landslide Friday that wiped out the farming village of Guinsaugon and left an estimated 1,800 people dead.

Then, a whistle cut through the eerily quiet landscape. The corpse of a young woman had been discovered when the troops felt it with their legs as they waded through the murk.

Elsewhere, the bodies of a child and a woman were found close to each other and pulled out from knee-deep mud in a cluster of wrecked houses.

The bodies were placed on stretchers, then loaded in the shovel of a payloader and brought to the disaster command post -- a huddle of hastily erected canvas tents -- where they were washed with pails of river water before they were taken to a morgue.

Army Staff Sergeant Danilo Cajigal was a member of a search team armed with shovels that retrieved five bodies as mud shifted dangerously around the rescuers.

"At one point there was a loud rumbling and we ran away," Cajigal said. "We can see only a few roofs jutting out. Everything has been buried."

Cajigal said residents and other civilians pointed out where houses used to stand, and search parties were digging in those areas.

Workers laid several dozen bodies in rows at a makeshift mortuary in a recreation hall with a disco ball and lights. Some corpses were in bags, while others were uncovered save for cloths or handkerchiefs across their faces. The smell of the bodies and chemicals used for embalming was pungent.

One mortician said he and his colleagues had difficulty combing the hair of the dead because of encrusted mud, so they just cut it off.

Family members arrived to try to identify loved ones, and throngs of onlookers gathered to watch the morticians work in the hall, which had pillars but no walls.

While hopes remained that more survivors might still be found, the mood was somber as the search yielded only the dead.

People who volunteered to help with the search efforts were told they could not go in yet because conditions were unsafe.

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