By Jeoffrey Maitem, Karl Romano and Luis Liwanag
Hundreds of rescuers raced against the clock Monday to dig through 30 feet of mud in efforts to reach as many as 50 miners and their families, who were believed to be trapped by a landslide unleashed by Typhoon Manghkut in a northern Philippine mining town.
As police and volunteers used bare hands, picks and shovels to find the missing people in Itogon town, the overall death toll from the swift-moving typhoon had reached 58 as of Monday, according to the Office of Civil Defense. The death toll is expected to climb.
Five black cadaver bags were lined up along a roadside in Itogon, a mining town in the Cordillera mountain region. Between 40 and 50 people who had sought shelter in an old two-story bunkhouse converted into living quarters are missing and feared dead.
A BenarNews team joined rescuers in climbing down the slope. At ground zero, little was said by rescuers as a chain saw cut through logs in the debris.
While the chance of finding survivors is slim, rescuers said they will not stop until all remains of missing miners are recovered even as they continue to battle the elements.
“There’s an indication of a crack in the mountain. If it would rain again, there’s a possibility of another landslide,” said Lison Latawan, a local town official.
“In our estimate, over 50 people were missing. This includes friends and relatives of the miners. But it could be more,” he said.
Mangkhut slammed into the Philippines on Saturday, bringing winds of 170 kph (105 mph) with gusts of 260 kph (160 mph).
Learning of the landslide, Dino Dumugdug rushed to the town to look for his nephew, Sedon Dumugdug, 25. The younger man had just finished his criminology studies and was working as a freelance miner while waiting to get a better job.
“We hope that he is still alive but with what we saw from the ground zero, we will leave everything to God,” he said.
Town Mayor Victorio Palangdan said two miners survived by crawling through a tunnel at the height of the mudslide while others sought shelter in the bunkhouse.
“They thought their area was safe so they turned it into an evacuation center by themselves. We did not allow them to do so, but they threatened to fight us off,” Palangdan said.
“They laughed at our policemen. They insisted,” he told reporters. “They were resisting when our police tried to pull them away. What can we do?”
Palangdan slammed the Benguet Corp. which had run a mining operation at the site, saying the company knew of a sinkhole in 2015.
“They were supposed to rehabilitate it after they finished their operation but they did not do it,” he said.
Army Brig. Gen. Leopoldo Imbang, commander of military’s 503rd Brigade who heads the search and retrieval operations, assured the families crews would not stop the excavation operation until they recovered the buried bunkhouse.
“We have halted the operation Sunday night due to the darkness. The operation will be difficult considering the unstable area and volume of the debris, but with high spirit and sense of coordination, we are optimistic that we will still rescue survivors,” Imbang said.
The operations began at first light Monday, with earth movers clearing roads of debris so rescuers and other volunteers could punch through.
Roy Cimatu, President Rodrigo Duterte’s environment secretary, ordered suspension of small-scale mining operations in the region to prevent a similar accident.
“In view of this current situation in the Cordilleras, to prevent further danger to the lives of small-scale miners, I officially order cease and desist of all illegal small-scale mining operations in the whole of Cordillera Administrative Region,” Cimatu said. “We ask them to cooperate.”
The worst landslide in the Philippines occurred on Feb. 17, 2006, following a 10-day downpour. It hit the province of Southern Leyte, burying the entire community of Guinsaugon and killing more than 1,000 people.
In January 2012, dozens were killed while as many as 100 people went missing following a landslide that struck the town of Pantukan, in Compostela Valley in Mindanao.
The Philippines sits on a typhoon belt and endures up to 20 storms a year, some of them devastating.
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