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The day the rain brought death to northern Philippine town

Days after landslide hit Itogon mine bunkhouse, rescuers are still pulling bodies from the mud

Mark Saludes, Itogon

Mark Saludes, Itogon

Published: December 27, 2018 08:25 PM GMT

Updated: December 27, 2018 09:28 PM GMT

The day the rain brought death to northern Philippine town

Residents of the village of Ucab in the northern Philippine town of Itogon flee to safer ground a day after their mining community was buried in mud and debris in the wake of Typhoon Mangkhut. (Photo by Mark Saludes)

The storm has passed but the horror still lingers for Josie Calixto. 

The road was wet and muddy when she reached the shelter where the bodies of those who died in the landslide were brought.

This was a moment she dreaded, when she has to identify the body of her older sister, Simona. 

Josie took her time and tried to control her feelings before taking a look at the bodies from one of 80 landslide areas in the northern Philippine town on Itogon.

She had to look at the bodies before the sun set. She approached the dead like a child walking in a dark alley, wanting to end the agony but too afraid of what she might find.

"That is not my sister," she told the policeman who lifted a blanket that covered one of the victims.

Josie went to one corner of the shelter and waited.

Family members of missing people at a mine site in the northern Philippines wait for news from authorities about their loved ones on Sept. 16. (Photo by Mark Saludes)


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The day the earth came down

The sun did not shine over the village of Ucab in Itogon town when Typhoon Mangkhut hit the northern part of the Philippines on Sept. 15.

Daniel Bolhayon, a 53-year-old miner, left his cottage after breakfast to meet a colleague from the other side of town. 

At 10 a.m., he received a call that his co-worker was not coming because the roads were blocked by mudslides.

Instead of going home, Bolhayon headed to the miners' office in the village for a cup of coffee. 

"It has been raining here for almost a month," he said. "But it was different when the typhoon came."

At about 12:30 p.m., his phone rang. It was his daughter telling him to go home because soil from the top of the mountain was sliding down.

He rushed out in the middle of the downpour. The road to his village was blocked so he had to take a longer route. 

Above Bolhayon's village on the mountainside, 14-year-old Sheina was looking out of her hut's window when she noticed the earth move.

The mud washed over houses and the road like melted chocolate poured on marshmallows.

"We could not do anything but stay inside and wait for the rain to stop," the girl said. 

Upon reaching his village, Bolhayon could not believe what he saw. "The bunkhouse and the cottages around it were missing," he said.

The landslide buried the two-story accommodation building with at least 70 individuals in it. It was an old structure owned by the Benguet Consolidated Mining Company that started mining operations in the area in 1903. 

When the company abandoned the mine site in 2009 following a ban on all mining activities, pocket miners used the bunkhouse as living quarters. 

A portion at the second floor was converted into a place of worship for members of the local Baptist Church.

On the morning of Sept. 15, some miners and their families sought shelter in the chapel to avoid expected floods due to the heavy rain.

The people were warned as early as Sept. 11 to leave the area because of the expected danger the typhoon would bring.

"Instead of going to designated evacuation centers, people chose to use the chapel as a temporary sanctuary," said Alfred Bugnosen of the Benguet Federation of Small-Scale Miners.

Bugnosen said the people were "probably right" to think that a century-old bunker could withstand the storm, but they did not consider the possibility of a landslide.

"We do not know the actual number of people who were buried alive until we recover every one," he told ucanews.com.

He said they expect to recover bodies of children because miners who live in the area brought their families with them.

"I am sure, there are children in that mudslide," he said. 


The cost of gold

Itogon's main source of living is mining. More than half the total 449.73 square-kilometer land area of the town is given over to mining concessions. 

Besides the Benguet Consolidated Mining Company, firms like Philex Mining Corporation, Atok Big Wedge Mining Company, and Itogon-Suyoc Resources Inc. had also operated in the town.

Virgilio Aniceto, a local pastor of the United Church of Christ in the Philippines, said small-scale miners are now "just sweeping up the left-overs" of the big mining companies.

Aniceto blamed the big mining corporations for the "landslide." He said they "raped our environment and our natural resources for decades."

"Now, poor people are reaping the wrath of Mother Earth, vulnerable people are paying the real cost of gold," said the Protestant pastor.

In a statement, Benguet dismissed allegations that it allowed small-scale miners to operate in its abandoned mine. 

The company maintained that it mining operations in Itogon remain suspended.

"During the period of suspension, the mine was gradually encroached upon by small-scale miners. Their activities are without the permission from the company," the statement said.

Father Edwin Gariguez, head of the social action arm of the Catholic bishops' conference, called on the government to look into possible culpability among the mining companies.

The priest said what happened in Itogon town was "not an act of God but a man-made disaster that was brought by greed and grave disregard of the welfare of all creation." 

He said the mining companies did nothing to rehabilitate the site.

Josie's search for her sister, meanwhile, ended on the morning of Sept. 17 when volunteers brought a woman's body to the shelter for identification. 

"That's my sister Simona," Josie said.

This article was first published 21.9.2018.

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