Cultists heed experts' warning, to abandon tunnels by mid-year

Philippine Star, March 6, 2000
By Ulysses Torres Sabuco

LEYTE, Leyte - No "ring of fire" came, but earthquakes and landslides might, and they better leave, government experts warned them. Now, cultists here led by octogenarian Seferino Quinte, apprised of the potential disasters, vowed to leave by mid-year the tunnels they have dug up to save themselves from the doomsday they imagined the new millennium would bring.

In a dialogue last Friday, a team of experts from the Department of Environment and Natural Resources and the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology (Phivolcs) finally convinced Quinte's group to abandon the 51 tunnels they have carved out of the old man's four-hectare hilly property here since two years ago.

Quinte assured the government experts and local authorities that his family and followers would return to their homes by July. About 50 families, from the original 160, remain at the site.

Quinte's grandson Nelson, the cult's secretary and spokesman, opposed, however, the old man's decision, saying they should vacate the place if no doomsday signs occur on Good Friday, the entire month of May, June 24, Dec. 24-25 and up to Jan. 1, 2001.

"Wala man mi maka observe ug dautan mao nga wala mi musolod (We didn't observe bad signs on that day so we didn't enter)," said Nelson when asked why they did not hide in the tunnels last Jan. 1. Quinte had predicted that a "ring of fire" would occur with the dawning of the new millennium. But no such catastrophe occurred, instead diseases hounded the cultists, killing at least three persons, including Quinte's own grandson.

Gov't findings

In Friday's dialogue, engineer Raul Corias disclosed that the tunnels have weakened due to climatic conditions in the past two years. This is based on findings of a study done by Phivolcs and the Mines and Geosciences Bureau. The tunnels were found to be situated on the western portion of the Philippine Fault which extends from Northern Luzon to Eastern Mindanao, passing through the Biliran Strait, between Biliran Island and the Calubian Peninsula.

The fault line traverses the island of Leyte, from Leyte town in the north to the towns of Sogod and St. Bernard in the south. Seismic data showed that there is a historical occurrence of strong to very strong earthquakes in the eastern side of the Calubian Peninsula, and moderate tremors in the Biliran Strait. Magnitude 10 quakes occurred in Calubian in 1743 and 1907, the last one with its epicenter north of St. Bernard town.

Volcanologists said the Philippine Fault is an active fault that moves about two to three centimeters every year. The government study also noted "intense soil creeping" or the slow downslope movement of soil in Quinte's hilly land, as well as multiple fault lines inside the tunnels. Continuous heavy rains may also trigger landslides.

Mayor James Ysidoro said they would monitor the cultists' movements. Corias said they would return to the site in June for "follow-up inspection."

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