MANILA, PHILIPPINES — Philippine officials said on Tuesday 91 bodies had been recovered and about 100 others were missing feared dead in the collapse of a mountain of garbage on a Manila shantytown.

"It's a recovery operation, not a search and rescue operation," Defense Secretary Orlando Mercado told Reuters some 36 hours after an avalanche of rain-drenched garbage thundered down on the squatters colony.

The hectare-wide pile of rubbish is called "The Promised Land."

He said local officials at the Promised Land shantytown had no firm count on how many were still buried under a hectare-wide pile of rubbish but he believed there were about 100.

The Red Cross estimated 70 were missing but the local civil defense office put the number at several hundred.

Rescue officer Lieutenant Fausto Tapiador gave a much higher estimate, saying he believed the bodies so far retrieved were "only about five percent" of the total missing.

"Yes," Mercado said when asked if he believed if all those buried were dead.

Rescue teams were digging at 17 sites but in some areas had not been able to penetrate beyond the roofs of the collapsed shanties, a Red Cross spokeswoman said.

Among the latest victims found were Maria Balbuena and her five-year-old son, Allan, whose bodies were lifted by a mechanical digger from a smoldering heap of garbage that was once their home.

A Mother's Love
A fire broke out in the dump after Monday's collapse as a live electric cable snapped and ignited trash and trapped methane gas.

Over 100 squatter huts at the massive dump were crushed in the avalanche.

Maria was clutching her son to her breast with both arms as though trying to shield him from harm.

"I had been looking for them," wept Balbuena's husband as he identified the bodies of his wife and son. "Last night I prayed I will find them, but now they are gone."

Relief officer Adela Pamat told Reuters: "Up to yesterday afternoon, we could still hear voices from below calling for help, but last night we could no longer hear them.

"Even the relatives say they think all of them are dead. I think they are all dead, too."

An army captain said: "All we could find are dead people."

About 100 people were also injured when a one-hectare (2.4-acre) section of the 10-hectare garbage dump in the Manila suburb of Quezon City crumbled after being pounded for days by typhoon Kai-Tak.

More than 100 squatter huts at the base of the massive dump, which towers over the shantytown like a volcano, were crushed in the avalanche of rubbish and mud.

Mercado said it might take four days to recover the bodies of the missing but rescue teams needed smaller dredging equipment to prevent the rubble from giving way and burying victims even deeper.

Relatives Fight Stench
By Tuesday, the smell of rubbish was giving way to the stench of rotting bodies coming from the heap.

Grief-stricken relatives braved the smell and clustered around crushed shanties, desperately hoping someone might still be found alive.

The dumpsite — ironically called Lupang Pangako (Promised Land) — is a bleak underworld of 80,000 slum-dwellers, most of whom trek up the small mountain of garbage daily to forage for used plastic containers, picture frames, broken toys and broken appliances to sell to junk shops.

The Promised Land is a bleak underworld of 80,000 slum-dwelling scavengers.

For 20 years, it has stood as a symbol of the massive poverty gripping this Roman Catholic nation of 75 million.

Each scavenger earns about 200 pesos ($4.50) a day.

President Joseph Estrada said the government planned to close the dump.

"We are working on a housing project for these people (the squatters) so that they would have a decent place to live in," he said in a radio interview.

As soldiers rummaged through the rubble, one elderly woman who had lost her daughter in the disaster and was looking for other missing relatives, broke down and wept.

"They have found my daughter's body and it was badly burned. They also found the body of her daughter but its head was gone," Conchita Ramos wailed.

"We are not blaming anyone for this but we want to have their bodies back. We are calling on President Erap (Estrada): 'Please, have the bodies dug up. Many of them are still buried there. There are still thousands of them buried there."'


Despite President Estrada's promises, the Promised Land was closed for only a short time. Almost two years to the date of the July 2000 landslide, on July 9, The Phillipine Daily Inquirer reported that a growing new hill of garbage, again with methane gas trapped inside, threatens a repeat of this tragedy.

One of the hundreds of inhabitants of the dumpsite said residents want to remain for as long as authorities will allow them.

"Until they ask us to leave we will not leave," he told reporters.


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