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By Jack Metta

PORT MORESBY, Papua New Guinea (April 4, 2002 – The National)---As many as 64 people are dead or missing following a massive landslide that struck two remote coffee plantation villages, six kilometers (3.6 miles) northeast of Wantoat district station in Morobe province in the early hours of Tuesday.

Yesterday, a provincial government team led by Markham District Administrator Buds Botikie, after an early morning tour of the disaster site, reported that 36 people have been confirmed dead.

This followed the recovery yesterday of eight more bodies from the mud and debris that buried a coffee plantation and Natma and Banguzai villages late on Monday night.

Twenty-six bodies were recovered after the disaster, on Tuesday morning.

A further 28 people are unaccounted for and searches are still continuing to recover their bodies.

Among those missing are seven people, the entire family of local councilor and former Morobe provincial assembly member Mataio Bupap.

Mr. Bupap was in Lae on business when the disaster struck around midnight on Monday.

Up to 11 people were evacuated from the disaster site by Pacific Helicopters choppers on Tuesday morning and they have been treated for compound fractures and lacerations.

However, a woman needing urgent medical care for serious injuries was flown to Lae yesterday morning on a chartered Islands Aviation helicopter, which had earlier brought in relief supplies to the area.

The patients undergoing treatment at Wantoat health center presently include two pastoral students from Teptep on the other side of Wantoat near the Madang-Morobe border.

Esinkope Munjamin and Sifio Bubia were resting for two nights in the villages after walking through the mountains from Teptep. They were on their way to the Highlands Highway to catch a truck to the Raipinka Evangelical Pastoral College in Kainantu.

The disaster struck during their second night in the village.

Munjamin suffered serious facial and bodily lacerations while Bubia escaped with a broken arm. The shock of the experience was still evident on their faces when The National visited them at the Wantoat health center yesterday.

Aid post orderly supervisor Bingmalu Yuwia told Governor Luther Wenge yesterday that all patients admitted into the hospital have been cared for and are on strong antibiotics.

"Their condition is stable and we firmly believe they will fully recover."

The provincial administration yesterday morning began flying in relief supplies including medicine to treat the wounded at the Wantoat health center, and shelters for as many as 50 people who have been left homeless by the disaster.

Except for villagers involved in search and salvage work, all other villagers have been directed to safer grounds at the Wantoat Government Station.

Food needs are still being assessed, but according to the local people, it wasn't a priority at the moment.

The National visited the site yesterday in the company of Governor Wenge and noted the following:

* A wide swathe of clearing on the side of a mountain at least 200 meters (660 feet) high from whence the slide obviously began on Tuesday around midnight.

* A large tract of barren land on the other side of the river which separates the mountain from the villages, like the surface of the moon, where two villages and a coffee plantation existed only days before; and;

* Trees smothered flat, uprooted and broken by the force of the slide as it slid down the hill, over the small creek and onto the other side of the bank.

Local residents also claimed divine intervention, pointing out a bush material Lutheran Church, in front of which the mudflow halted, leaving the church and two houses nearby intact.

The houses in fact, were directly on the right of the foot of the mountain from where the slide began.

Governor Wenge said yesterday that his Government stood ready to help and if the need arose, he would make a public appeal for help.

Morobe Disaster and Emergency officials are wary of impending dangers of the mud and debris at the disaster site, fearing that more heavy rains could trigger off further mudslides.

The officers contend that heavy rains in the past few weeks had contributed to the disaster.

Warnings have been issued to locals in the disaster prone zone to seek safe haven at the Wantoat Government Station until further notice.

An earthquake measuring 5.3 on the Richter scale and centered near Siassi Island also rocked parts of the province on Monday morning and may have played a part in the ensuing disaster, though residents at Wantoat reported that they did not feel the quake.

The Leron-Wantoat area is a disaster prone zone with reports of more than 40 landslides on file.

A similar disaster in the area in 1988 claimed the lives of 70 people when a whole village perished in a landslide.

For additional reports from The National, go to PACIFIC ISLANDS REPORT News/Information Links: Newspapers/The National (Papua New Guinea).

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