Philippine village searched after deadly landslide

January 6, 2012 - 3:36 AM
Philippines Landslide

In this photo released by the Philippine Army, a resident, below, searches for victims through the rubble following a landslide that occurred at the small-scale mining community of Pantukan, Compostela Valley in southern Philippines Thursday Jan. 5, 2012. The landslide tore through a small-scale gold mining site in the southern Philippines on Thursday, months after government officials warned miners that the mountain above them was guaranteed to crumble. (AP Photo/Philippine Army, Senior Police Officer 1 Roger Montejo) NO SALES, EDITORIAL USE ONLY

MANILA, Philippines (AP) — Authorities resumed searching Friday for victims of a landslide that killed at least 22 people when it slammed into a remote Philippine gold-mining village where miners work their small-scale claims with pickaxes.

Early reports of as many as 100 additional people missing were overblown, officials said, but they added that they had no good estimate of how many people remained unaccounted for.

The landslide came down with a loud whoosh hours before dawn Thursday on a mountainside dotted with mine shafts and crude shanties with corrugated metal roofs in Napnapan village in the southern province of Compostela Valley.

"It was like a dump truck unloading gravel and sand," said survivor Darwin Aguinawon, 27. "In only three seconds, our house came rolling down the slope."

It was the area's second deadly landslide in a year — 20 were killed in a neighboring village last April — and prompted the environment secretary to call for curbing permits in the region's small-scale mining industry.

Initial reports of about 100 missing were based solely on the number of shanties believed hit by the landslide, but many of their residents would have been away on holiday or evacuated hours earlier when the ground started moving, Pantukan town spokesman Arnulfo Lantayan told The Associated Press.

"We are very confident that it will not reach that number," he said.

The municipal disaster office lowered its earlier death toll of 25, as reported by residents and village leaders, to 22, based on the number of bodies recovered, Lantayan said.

It was difficult to determine the number of missing because local authorities have no reliable records of the mostly migrant miners who work in the area with their families, Civil Defense chief Benito Ramos said.

Officials agreed that far fewer than 100 people were missing in the disaster.

The mountainside above Napnapan village collapsed around 3 a.m. Thursday when many residents would have been sleeping, sweeping away about 50 houses, shanties and other makeshift shelters, officials said.

However, many residents already had evacuated around midnight when they observed ground movement near the top of the mountain, Lantayan said. Many others were still visiting home provinces for Christmas holidays, he said.

Army photographs of the disaster show a steep mountainside that looks like it was gouged by a giant shovel. Houses are buried in rubble or lying on their sides while crumpled metal roofs and trees lay nearby.

One tunnel entrance appeared half-covered by rocks and soil. It was not known how many mine shafts have been blocked by debris or whether there were people inside.

A fissure in the mountain discovered last year likely was aggravated by heavy rains and continuous mining in the saturated ground.

Environment and Natural Resources Secretary Ramon Paje said that authorities had warned residents and local officials last year of the fissure after geologists said it was "highly susceptible" to sudden landslides.

Hundreds of residents near the site of Thursday's slide had been evacuated after last April's landslide less than a mile (about 1 kilometer) away in neighboring Kingking village, Paje said.

But many had returned to the area, officials said.

Paje urged local officials to stop handing out small-scale mining permits, now estimated to number about 3,000 all around the watershed.