DAVAO, April 22, 2011 (AFP) – At least 21 people were missing and three confirmed dead after a night-time landslide ravaged a gold mining village in a mountainous area of the Philippines on Friday, authorities said.
The rain-triggered landslide hit at about 3am, ripping through shanty homes as miners and their families were sleeping, and destroying poorly constructed tunnels where the unregistered workers toiled for gold, they said.
Three bodies had been found by Friday afternoon while 10 people had been pulled from the debris alive, according to the mayor of the district where the disaster occurred, Celso Sarenas.
“There are at least 21 still unaccounted for. We do not know if they are dead or alive. They might have been buried,” Sarenas told AFP by telephone.
The military earlier said as many as 40 or 50 people were missing, but Sarenas said the lower figure of 21 was more accurate as it was based on a roll call of people living in the area.
However Seranas said the exact number could not be known for certain, as transient miners may have arrived at the site just before the landslide without registering with authorities.
The landslide cut out a huge slice of a mountainside on the outskirts of Kingking, an isolated village in the resource-rich but violence-plagued and poor southern island of Mindanao.
Sarenas said as many as 500 people had been living on the mountain slope before the disaster, most of them poor, small-scale miners who had defied repeated government warnings to leave the extremely dangerous area.
“They are hard-headed. They told me, they would rather die from a landslide than die from hunger,” he said.
“They want to get rich no matter how dangerous their tunnelling is.”
Nevertheless Sarenas said many of the people living on the slope had temporarily left in recent days because of fears the rains would trigger a landslide, preventing a much higher death toll.
Authorities said one person was killed and five others were injured when a landslide hit the same area last month, while 21 people were killed when a similar landslide brought on by heavy rains hit the same place in May 2009.
Civil defence officials said rescue efforts had been hampered because the landslide had blocked roads to the area — normally a couple of hours’ drive from Mindanao’s trading capital, Davao City.
“The route to the area is impassable, but we have heavy equipment that is already clearing the area,” Susan Madrid, duty officer of the region’s National Disaster Risk Reduction Management Council, told AFP.
However soldiers and civil defence teams had quickly reached Kingking by helicopter or by hiking in from nearby villages.
The government, with the help of a US mining company that has been carrying out exploration work in the region, had also deployed heavy digging equipment.
Military sniffing dogs were sent in to find any buried bodies.
Sarenas said the search would continue through the night, with portable generators brought in to power lights.