MANILA, Philippines (AP) - The farming village is gone, swallowed whole by a wall of mud and boulders that swept down with terrifying speed Friday from a mountainside in the eastern Philippines. Officials feared the death toll could climb past 1,500.
"There are no signs of life, no rooftops, no nothing," Southern Leyte province Gov. Rosette Lerias said. The village of Guinsaugon, once a community of 2,500 people, now looks like a 40-hectare patch of newly plowed land.
Its 375 homes and elementary school were buried under mud up to 10 metres deep. Only a few small piles of debris hint at the devastation. Only a few jumbles of corrugated steel sheeting indicate Guinsaugon ever existed.
The official death toll stood at 23 after darkness forced suspension of rescue efforts, hours after the morning landslide. But the Philippine Red Cross estimated at least 200 dead and 1,500 missing. Significantly, only 53 survivors were plucked from the brown morass on Leyte island, 675 kilometres southeast of Manila.
"Our village is gone, everything was buried in mud," said survivor Eugene Pilo, who lost his family. "All the people are gone."
"It sounded like the mountain exploded, and the whole thing crumbled," added fellow survivor Dario Libatan, who lost his wife and three children. "I could not see any house standing anymore."
Rescue workers were hampered by the thick, soft mud that remained unstable, along with flash floods spawned by two weeks of downpours. The heavy rains were blamed on the La Nina weather phenomenon, that dumped 68.5 centimetres of rain on the area.
The governor asked for people to dig by hand, saying the mud was too soft for heavy equipment.
"I have a glimmer of hope, based on the rule of thumb. Within 24 hours you can still find survivors," Lerias said. "After that, you move on to the recovery phase, but right now it's still rescue mode."
A second, minor landslide added to volunteers' jitters, and a helicopter pilot said the ground near the top of the mountain was still moving in late afternoon.
"You could see a patch of green, then mud where it was," Leo Dimaala said, estimating that half the mountain had collapsed.
Education officials said 250 pupils and teachers were believed to have been at the elementary school. Only one girl and a woman were rescued alive nearby.
Two other villages also were affected, and about 3,000 evacuees huddled 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."
Aerial TV footage showed a wide swath of mud alongside stretches of green rice paddies at the foothills of the scarred mountain.
Survivors and others blamed illegal logging for contributing to the disaster.
Pat Vendetti, a London-based campaigner with the Greenpeace environmental action group, said illegal logging may prove to have contributed to the mudslide.
"There were similar landslides at the end of 2004 and the end of 2003, both directly linked to illegal logging on land above villages, and both in the Philippines," said Vendetti.
The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies blamed a combination of the weather and the type of trees prevalent in the area.
"The remote coastal area of Southern Leyte . . . is heavily forested with coconut trees," the Red Cross said from Geneva. "They have shallow roots, which can be easily dislodged after heavy rains, causing the land to become unstable.
Lerias said that even before the landslide, "trees were sliding down upright with the mud."
A small earthquake also shook the area, but scientists said it took place after the landslide and probably was unrelated.
Rescue workers dug with shovels for signs of survivors, and put a child on a stretcher, with little more than the girl's eyes showing through a covering of mud.
"Help is on the way," President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo said in televised remarks. "It will come from land, sea and air."
The Philippine Red Cross had 14 people on the ground dealing with rescue efforts and the recovery of bodies. More staff and trained volunteers were being sent to the region, along with dog rescue teams.
A relief plane was flying from Manila carrying 1,000 body bags, emergency trauma kits to help 1,000 people, rubber boots, ropes, clothing, flashlights and medicine.
The international Red Cross launched an emergency appeal for $1.5 million US for relief operations. The funds will be used for buying temporary shelter materials and other emergency health and cooking items.
Lerias said many residents evacuated the area last week because of the threat of landslides or flooding, but had started returning home during increasingly sunny days, with the rains limited to evening downpours.
Last weekend, seven road construction workers died in a landslide after falling into a 45-metre-deep ravine in the mountain town of Sogod on Leyte.
In 1991, about 6,000 people were killed on Leyte in floods and landslides triggered by a tropical storm. Another 133 people died in floods and mudslides there in 2003.