By Agence France-Presse and the Associated Press
ITOGON(AFP/AP) – The miners in the mountains of northern Philippines usually dig for gold. But on Tuesday they were digging for their colleagues and relatives buried under a vast landslide unleashed by Typhoon “Ompong” (international name Mangkhut).
Searchers have already pulled over a dozen corpses from the mud and debris in the mining town of Itogon, and up to 40 more people could be entombed – with very little hope they are alive.
“I know all of them. I work with them,” said miner Johnny Paggadut Jr. “The only thing on my mind now is I want to help give the bodies of my friends back to their families.”
Around him hundreds of searchers, a quarter of whom were miners, scraped away at the hardening mass of mud as cadaver-sniffing dogs were led across the site.
A roughly half-kilometre stretch of hillside in the Cordillera range collapsed on dwellings used by small-scale miners and their families as the typhoon dumped a month’s worth of rain in a matter of hours.
Even before the storm hit, the hilly region was primed for landslides after a month of monsoon rains saturated the soil.
Carlos Payadon, 62, was working the hot, muddy pit on Tuesday in search of his nephew Sidney Dumugdog.
He had hoped the young man, in his 20s, would find a different job with fewer risks, but Dumugdogneeded the money.
“I know he is already dead. But I just hope we can dig up his body,” Payadon said. “I can’t give up. When you give up it’s like forsaking your family.”
‘I will continue digging’
Itogon is one of the country’s oldest mining hubs, with known gold panning activity stretching back to before the 17th-century Spanish colonial conquest.
Thousands of people from all over the country still flock to the upland town seeking their fortune in largely unregulated mining, which is accompanied by periodic deadly accidents.
Paggadut helped dig out the corpses of six friends in the same area in 2008 when a typhoon triggered a landslide.
He himself could have been trapped under the mud this time had he not decided at the last minute to visit his children in another province.
“This is where I live,” he said looking up at the gash the slide left in a towering green hill.
“In times like this, miners from all over the region pitch in,” provincial police chief Lyndon Mencio, told AFP saying they are an asset because of expertise at tunneling.
“All belong to the same profession and doing this gives them comfort, knowing they could count on this same kind of help,” he added.
While officials spoke of a possible miracle, the miners were more sombre.
“It hurts a lot,” said 27-year-old Jonathan Dunuan. “I will continue digging until all of the bodies have been found.”
‘Some were smiling’
Police Senior Inspector HehersonZambaletold The Associated Press he was stunned to learn that the massive slide had covered a chapel and bunkhouses in Bgy. Ucabwhere he and other officials had met with some of the victims a day before the tragedy struck on Saturday.
Zambale said he and other local officials tried to convince the villagers, mostly small-scale miners and their families, to move to a safer evacuation center as the typhoon approached.
A villager officer who accompanied Zambale used a megaphone to warn residents that Mangkhut was extraordinarily powerful and everybody should leave.
The villagers told the policemen the chapel and nearby bunkhouses were on stable ground, and that they would only move away if the storm became severe.
Zambale said he saw about 15 villagers outside the chapel and bunkhouses. “Some were smiling and there were some who were just quiet. Some were listening to us,” he said.
Police photographs obtained by AP showed the officers in hard hats and light green raincoats talking with the villagers outside of what appears to be the concrete chapel and nearby bunkhouse, with piles of sandbags nearby. Part of the mountain slope, covered in green foliage, can be seen behind the buildings.
Zambale, who has battled insurgents and criminals for eight years, said he had a bad feeling about the clearing where the buildings stood near a river, surrounded by tall mountains.
Some villagers heeded the warnings and left before the typhoon struck.
“But many were left behind,” Zambale said.
Rescuers have recovered 14 bodies from the avalanche and at least 58 other people remain missing, he said. Itogon Mayor VictorioPalangdan said Monday it was unlikely any of the missing are still alive, although rescuers continued to search.
Regional police commander Rolando Nana said a special police unit scanned the landslide-hit area with radar that can detect heart beats, but found no sign of life.
As more than 300 rescuers, including police and soldiers, used shovels and picks to search for the missing, Zambale said he still remembers the faces of the villagers he tried to convince to flee.
“I really feel sad, I cannot describe the emotion,” he said. “It’s not only the people who don’t listen. They have children, wives, elderly parents who will all suffer.”