MANILA, Philippines » A landslide tore through a small-scale gold mining site in the southern Philippines on Thursday, killing at least 25 people and burying dozens more, months after government officials warned miners that the mountain above them was guaranteed to crumble.
The mountainside in Napnapan village in Pantukan township collapsed around 3 a.m., when most residents were asleep, sweeping away about 50 houses, shanties and other buildings, officials said.
Aside from those confirmed dead, more than 100 people were believed buried in the rubble, Compostela Valley provincial Gov. Arturo Uy said.
Scores of soldiers and volunteers were helping villagers dig for survivors and bodies, regional military spokesman Col. Leopoldo Galon said. The bodies of two girls aged 6 and 14 were among those retrieved, he said.
At least 16 people were taken to a hospital, with six in critical condition, Galon said.
Environment and Natural Resources Secretary Ramon Paje said he had warned residents and local officials last year of a fissure on a ridge of the mountain that geologists said was “highly susceptible” to landslides that could occur anytime.
“We were absolute that it will give in,” he told The Associated Press. “It was a 100 percent warning. We told them it’s just a matter of time. … This is it. This is what happened this morning.”
Pantukan town spokesman Arnulfo Lantayan said heavy rains were hampering search and rescue work and increased the risk further slides “because there is still earth movement.”
Photos of the village taken by the army’s 10th Infantry Division after the landslide show a steep mountainside that looks like it was gouged by a giant shovel. Houses not buried by the rubble were lying on their sides while crumpled tin roofs and trees lay nearby.
One tunnel entrance appeared half covered by rocks and soil. It was unclear how many mine shafts have been blocked by debris.
Thousands of poor Filipinos dig and pan for gold in the area, hoping to strike it rich despite the dangers of largely unregulated mining. The tunnels are often unstable and landslides and accidents are common.
Saul Pingoy, a local resident, told DZMM radio that he was sleeping in a house about 50 yards (meters) away from the landslide when he felt the ground shake and heard rocks falling on roofs.
“The mountain itself was already sending a warning with falling rocks. That’s why we were woken up … and then it collapsed,” he said. “Big boulders and the ground from the mountain covered the area.”
Darwin Aguinawon, a 27-year-old logger, told reporters he heard what sounded like a “dump truck unloading gravel and sand” and seconds later his house tumbled down the slope. He saw a fellow miner tossed outside the house through where a wall once stood.
Compostela Valley province is on the main southern Philippine island of Mindanao, where flash floods triggered by a tropical storm killed more than 1,250 people in December. Uy, the governor, said miners and their families had been warned that the heavy rains made the small tunnels and mine shafts that honeycomb the hills and mountains more dangerous.
Uy said authorities advised residents as early as Dec. 16 when Tropical Storm Washi was sweeping across Mindanao to leave their tunnels, “but unfortunately some have not responded to our advisories.”
Hundreds of residents near the site of Thursday’s slide were forced to evacuate last April after a landslide killed about 20 people.
Uy said it was difficult to monitor the “extremely high risk area” because it is so remote and some residents who were evacuated in April may have “sneaked back.”
Paje said the April slide occurred in Kingking village beside Napnapan. Both villages are part of a 74,130-acre (30,000-hectare) watershed that has been scarred by landslides over the years.
He said the fissure discovered last year has been aggravated by rainwater saturation and continuous diggings by the miners.
He urged local officials to stop giving small-scale mining permits, now estimated to number about 3,000 all around the watershed.
“Had they listened to us and stopped the entry (of miners), there would have been no casualty,” he said.