Hopes fade for 21 buried in Philippine landslide

OLIVER TEVES - Associated Press
Rescuers search for victims of landslide at a mining camp of Pantukan, Compostela Valley on Mindanao region in southern Philippines, Saturday April 23, 2011. Filipino rescuers who dug by hand to save people buried by a landslide were losing hope of finding 21 still missing in the disaster that killed at least three people in a remote gold mining village, officials said Saturday. (AP Photo/Jeoffrey Maitem)
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Rescuers search for victims of landslide at a mining camp of Pantukan, Compostela Valley on Mindanao region in southern Philippines, Saturday April 23, 2011. Filipino rescuers who dug by hand to save people buried by a landslide were losing hope of finding 21 still missing in the disaster that killed at least three people in a remote gold mining village, officials said Saturday.

Filipino rescuers who dug by hand to save people buried by a landslide were losing hope of finding 21 still missing in the disaster that killed at least three people in a remote gold mining village, officials said Saturday.

One miner pulled from the mountain of mud and rocks said he's survived three landslides in and around the mines, including one that killed his brother, but he can't afford to quit his job despite the dangers.

The shanties and tents where miners and some of their families slept were buried under about 100 feet (30 meters) of mud, soil, rocks and other debris after they were struck by the landslide before dawn Friday, Compostela Valey provincial Gov. Arturo Uy said.

Uy said landmarks that could help rescuers locate bunkhouses and tunnel entrances also were destroyed when tons of rain-soaked debris cascaded down a mountain in the village of Kingking in Pantukan township in the country's south.

Soldiers, police and miners used shovels and their bare hands to dig out 11 survivors.

"Honestly, I believe it would be very hard to find survivors," Uy said Saturday.

Regional civil defense officer Lisa Maso said, "Only a miracle can save them."

Jay Celades was teary-eyed recalling his third time surviving a landslide.

The 26-year-old said he, his younger brother and two others banged on the steel rails for six hours inside a mine shaft, knowing they would eventually be heard by rescuers. By midday Friday, workers dug through about 20 feet (six meters) of debris that blocked the tunnel opening to free them.

"All we could do was hope, but I prayed and prayed hard to come out alive," he told The Associated Press. "And for the third time, God heard me."

He said another younger brother was killed when they were trapped in a mine shaft in 2009, and he was trapped again a year later.

Still, he said he will continue working in the mine until he finds a better job that pays as much as the about 15,000 pesos ($345) he now brings home monthly.

Pantukan Mayor Celso Sarenas said a backhoe and a bulldozer negotiated a narrow mountain road and reached the site Saturday to help dig faster.

The landslide covered at least 2.5 acres (one hectare), said provincial police chief Aaron Aquino.

Some of the survivors escaped after they heard a rumbling sound, Aquino said.

Aerial pictures show a green mountain scarred by a brown swath of earth where rocks and debris rolled down onto the sleeping victims. Television footage Saturday showed rescuers manually digging with shovels and putting soil into small sacks they carried away one by one.

Blue tarpaulin roofing sheets and the broken remains of shanties littered the area and tree trunks snapped like matchsticks indicated the force of the mudslide. Many other shanties that were still standing perched precariously on mountainsides and ridges.

Uy said he will recommend a 30-day suspension of small-scale mining in the village while geologists determine whether it is safe.

He said that after a similar landslide which killed 26 people in a nearby village two years ago, residents signed a memorandum not to build homes but some "hardheaded" miners defied the agreement.

"It is illegal, but we cannot just stop their operation," he said of the miners who eke out a living by digging for gold in narrow, dangerous shafts.