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31 die as garbage heap collapses onto shanties

SHARE 31 die as garbage heap collapses onto shanties

MANILA, Philippines — A mountain of rain-loosened garbage collapsed at a giant Manila dump Monday then burst into flames, burying dozens of squatter houses and killing at least 31 people, officials said.

At least 68 people were missing and 29 others injured among the impoverished squatters who make a living by scavenging recyclable materials from the stinking Payatas dump in Quezon City, the largest garbage disposal site in metropolitan Manila.

The wall of garbage buried an area the size of about four basketball courts. Some shanties were completely buried by the burning heap while others lay half covered, their crumpled tin roofs showing.

"It sounded like thunder, and in an instant, our house was gone," said one squatter, Gloria Alano, who was at a store when the rotting garbage collapsed, burying her husband and three children.

She 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.

About 100 houses were covered, Quezon City Mayor Ismael Mathay said. He said 31 people were confirmed dead and 68 missing. Nearly 200 families, consisting of 780 people, were taken to an evacuation center at City Hall.

It was not immediately known what triggered the fire that engulfed part of the area, called Promised Land. Residents said the debris may have been ignited by fallen power cables or stoves being used in huts covered by the garbage. The dump often smolders from spontaneous combustion of rotting garbage.

Firetrucks were unable to reach the area because of limited space and parked on a main road several blocks from the dump site. Firefighters pulled fire hoses through crowded alleys, extinguishing most of the blaze after several hours.

Rescuers were still digging through the garbage late Monday night but were hampered by the stench and a lack of equipment, including powerful lights.

In one area, rescuers pulled out three bodies, including a burly man who was badly burned but still breathing. Red Cross volunteers doused his body with water from a fire hose and later tried but failed to revive him, witnesses said.

A week of heavy rains apparently loosened the mountain of garbage, officials said.

Officials say they have tried in recent years to relocate the hundreds of scavengers and junk yard workers living around the dumpsite, but most have refused.

Mathay said the government had intended to close the dumpsite permanently last December but postponed it to October when residents at a major garbage disposal landfill in San Mateo town in nearby Rizal province refused to allow garbage from metropolitan Manila to be dumped there.

Josephine Ranola, an injured scavenger taken to a Quezon City hospital, said they refused to be relocated because they could not afford the cost. The relocation sites are also far from areas where they could eke out a living, she said.

The Payatas dump, along with a former dump in Manila's Tondo slum district called Smokey Mountain, have been home to hundreds of scavengers who earn their living by rummaging for scraps.

The garbage dumps have long symbolized the wrenching poverty in the Philippines.

President Joseph Estrada's predecessor, Fidel Ramos, ordered Smokey Mountain to be leveled in the mid-1990s and built apartment buildings on the site.