Training in Philippines yields to ‘surreal’ recovery mission
Among the disaster relief teams dispatched to the site of a deadly landslide in the Philippines are more than 5,500 U.S. troops who already were in the region for the annual Balikatan exercise with Philippine forces.
Air Force Lt. Col. Chuck Metrolis said his airmen labored all day Tuesday, clawing through the muck in the vicinity of where an elementary school lay covered by more than 30 feet of mud and boulders.
“It’s an eerie scene,” Metrolis said by telephone from the scene Tuesday. “It’s been raining off and on since we got here late last night and there’s mud everywhere. It’s surreal.”
Metrolis, commander of the 31st Rescue Squadron, assigned to Kadena Air Base, traveled to Leyte from Clark Field with 18 of his pararescuemen and a flight surgeon to assist any survivors of the mudslide that erased the village of Guinsaugon, in the southern part of the island of Leyte some 420 miles southeast of Manila, on Friday morning.
But no survivors have been rescued since just after the disaster, and the task has become one of recovering the dead. As of Tuesday, the casualty figures stood at 415 survivors, 19 of them injured and 81 recovered bodies, 36 identified.
“We have two teams working at the school site — or where we believe the school site is located,” Metrolis said. “It’s hard to know where everything is because the sheer weight of the mud flowing down to the river basin pushed many buildings away from their original locations.”
He said the unit’s flight surgeon, Maj. Mona Sinno, was assisting in relocating a morgue and in supervising sanitation for the U.S. troops, Philippine armed forces and international civilian agencies participating the recovery effort.
“Our people are motivated to help where we can,” Metrolis said. “But with no survivors, and it being less likely there will be any more survivors as each day passes, we’ll probably leave in another day.
“Our primary mission is rescuing people,” he said.
Other U.S. troops were expected to stay longer, according to 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit spokesman Capt. Burrell Parmer and a news release from the U.S. Navy’s 7th Fleet.
About 300 Marines from the 31st MEU, based in Okinawa, were among the troops working alongside international relief teams from Taiwan, Malaysia and Singapore since their arrival Sunday.
Parmer said the Marines’ morale remains high despite not finding any survivors. He said they were working in shifts of 100 at a time.
“We’re staying on site, actually camped out in the mud,” Parmer said via telephone Tuesday. “We have yet to find any survivors, but yesterday the Marines pulled out seven bodies,” Parmer said. “They did a great job of composing themselves and treating the deceased with respect.”
Parmer said the work conditions were poor, with heavy downpours soaking the area four to five times a day and water running through the work site.
The USS Essex, USS Juneau, USS Harpers Ferry, the USS Curtis Wilbur and the 31st MEU arrived in Subic Bay on Friday for Balikatan ’06, but immediately were called to assist in the Leyte relief efforts. They arrived off the coast of Leyte on Sunday.
Since then, they have conducted continuous ship-to-shore transfers of relief supplies to the disaster area. A complement of 22 helicopters and landing craft have been involved in the relief mission, according to Navy public affairs.
The Air Force is flying C-130 missions into Tacloban, some 45 miles north of Guinsaugan, bringing in generators, forklifts, and basic needs such as blankets, food and medicines.
Stars and Stripes reporters Fred Zimmerman and Jeff Schogol contributed to this report.