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600 believed buried alive at Siaolin

KAOHSIUNG, Taiwan -- "Nobody knows how many people have been buried alive," a Kaohsiung fireman said yesterday.

All of them remain buried and no real count can be made, said Su Yu-ming, the member of the Kaohsiung fire brigade who has been working around the clock to locate missing villagers of Siaolin since last Tuesday.

"There's no way to keep count," the veteran firefighter lamented.

Siaolin, a remote aboriginal village in the largely agricultural county abutting the special municipality of Kaohsiung, was destroyed in flash floods triggered by record-breaking downpours triggered by Typhoon Morakot.

The tropical rainstorm plodded across Taiwan in two days, leaving in its wake more than 100 people dead and tens of thousands of others marooned in villages submerged in floodwaters over five meters deep in many places.

Rivers were swollen, breaching dikes and touched off mudslides that buried remote farming villages like Siaolin.

The village of Siaolin was hit hardest.

Only one building is above the mud and debris. Only 150 of its estimated 1,300 residents have been evacuated. The remaining 1,150 are still unaccounted for.

At least 600 of them are believed to be buried alive, Su and his 14 colleagues said. They arrived at Siaolin aboard an army helicopter to start looking for survivors.

"We found practically nobody when we began our work," said Wang Kuo-tai, a Kaohsiung fire brigade lieutenant who led the search and rescue team to Siaolin.

Over the last two days, 150 residents were located and ferried to safety.

According to the Kaohsiung disaster control center, at least 60 people were found dead and 900 others evacuated as of noon yesterday.

There are at least 4,000 others waiting for the evacuation to safety, said Yang Chiu-hsing, magistrate of Kaohsiung. They include the 1,150 in Siaolin, of whom 600 or a little more than half are considered still buried in the mud.

But Yang estimated those buried alive at about 300.

Meanwhile, rescuers are finding extraordinarily hard to locate the buried.

"It was much easier to locate the buried, when we did our search and rescue operation right after the Great Earthquake of September 21," one of Su's fellow firemen said.

Houses collapsed in the earthquake that hit central and southern Taiwan in 1999, killing nearly 2,400 people.

"Well," said Wu's friend, "we had houses, though they had collapsed, to look in for the missing. We have no clues now."

However, most of the rescuers agreed with their magistrate, who was out of the country while the tropical cyclone hit Taiwan, that their county suffered the worst nationwide in the flood disaster.

There are hundreds of residents buried in Siaolin's six neighboring villages. Siaolin belongs to the township of Chiahsien. Three villages are under the jurisdiction of the neighboring township of Liukwei. Another neighboring township, Namasia, has jurisdiction over three other aboriginal villages.

Yang promised to resettle the residents of all seven villages.

"These villages were destroyed," Yang said, "and all we can do is to resettle them in better places in our county."

He is facing reelection, come December, for his county is being merged with the city of Kaohsiung to make a larger special municipality.

Voters will go to the polls for year-end elections of 17 magistrates and mayors across the nation. The mayors of special municipalities will be elected at the end of next year. 

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 600 believed buried alive at Siaolin 
The flat mud plain where the aboriginal village of Siaolin used to be located. The village was destroyed in mudslides after Typhoon Morakot swept across Taiwan on Saturday. (CNA)

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