Hope of finding more survivors is fading fast in the Philippines, after a mountain of garbage collapsed on top of a nearby shantytown and then burst into flames.
“It’s almost impossible to get anybody alive at this time, after 24 hours,” said Defense Secretary Orlando Mercado, who also heads the National Disaster Coordinating Council.
The National Disaster Coordinating Council said about 300 squatter shanties and hundreds of residents near the dumpsite in the Quezon City suburb were feared buried.
More than 90 corpses had so far been retrieved from the dumpsite, called Lupang Pangako, or “the Promised Land” in the local Tagalog language. The council said 59 people had been rescued alive.
More victims are expected, with estimates of those missing ranging from 72 by the Red Cross to 300 by community leader Emerita Pecsonat.
Quezon City mayor Mel Mathay says even the government is fuzzy on the actual numbers of families living in Manila’ s grimy and dangerous zones.
“They are not in the census. These are scavengers living in shanties, they’re a moving population,” he said.
Land of Hell
Some 44 percent of the 10 million population of Manila live in poverty, in garbage dumps, by polluted waterways, under highway and railway bridges and on the sides of rail tracks.
The poorest among these live near or at garbage dumps, defying disease and the stink and scavenging in the garbage to eke out a living.
TheLupang Pangako dump is one of the largest in Manila and takes in about 1,500 tons of garbage each day.
”This is the Land of Hell,” said Wilson Carpio, a relative of one of the dead. “In the dry season there are flames all around. In the rainy season there are landslides. But we cannot leave this place because we are poor.”
“The way I see it, there is no more chance, because all those who were recovered were all dead, because they were burnt,” said Gema Esperilla, another victim’s relative. “I have no more hope that they are alive, but even if they are already dead, I just want to see them.”
Digging Through the Trash
Rescuers dug through the wall of rotting garbage into Tuesday, but were hampered by the stench and lack of equipment, including adequate lighting.
One scavenger, Gloria Alano, sobbed and yelled at rescuers using a heavy bulldozer on a heap of garbage to search for survivors and bodies.
“Backhoe, use only backhoes, not bulldozers, I want to get the bodies of my loved ones,” she cried. Her husband and three children were buried under the tons of garbage.
After collapsing onto the shanties, the wall of garbage burst into flames, engulfing the area. Residents said the debris may have been ignited by fallen power cables or stoves being used in huts covered by the garbage.
Portions of the dump, about 50 feet high and about five times the size of a football field, smolder and burn all day as decomposing organic waste, from rotting food to the carcasses of dead animals, ignite trapped methane gas.
Fire trucks could not reach the area because of limited space and parked on a main road several blocks from the dump. Hoses were pulled through crowded alleys by firefighters, who extinguished most of the blaze after several hours.
Danilo Castro, whose shanty was perched alongside the mountain of garbage, said he felt the ground shift in the morning, before it finally collapsed.
“I left the house because I needed to sell outside, so I left my wife and child,” he said. “When I came back my house was gone and my wife and child are buried underneath.”
The wall of garbage buried an area of squatter houses about the size of four basketball courts. About 100 houses were covered, Quezon City Mayor Mathay said.
About 780 people were taken to an evacuation center at city hall, he said.
Horror Beneath the Surface
In one area, rescuers pulled out three bodies, including a man badly burned but breathing.
Red Cross volunteers doused his body with water from a fire hose but failed to revive him, witnesses said.
A week of heavy rains followed by a thunderstorm early Monday apparently caused a crack in the upper portion of the mountain of garbage, Manila police chief Edgar Aglipay said.
The dumpsite was to be closed permanently last December but the plan was postponed until later this year after residents at a garbage landfill in San Mateo in nearby Rizal province refused to allow waste from metropolitan Manila to be dumped there.
ABCNEWS’ Gamay Palacios, the Associated Press, and Reuters contributed to this report