Updated at 3:38 p.m. ET on 2018-09-18
Rescuers rappelled into a deep ravine on Tuesday to pull bodies from a landslide that hit this northern Philippine town, as the overall death toll from Typhoon Mangkhut reached at least 74 victims, officials said.
A special rescue unit from the fire department used long ropes to lower a steel basket for lifting out bodies, as hundreds of policemen and volunteers worked frantically below to look for survivors that might be trapped in the village of Ucab.
At a command post set up nearby, dozens of empty body bags and caskets were waiting for the dead. On a white board were the names of those still missing, about 60 of them, including miners who lived in the area and their relatives.
Lt. Col. Joel Sobrera, commander of the Army’s disaster response unit, was heading the search-and-retrieval operations. He said they would not stop the operations until all the reported missing miners were found.
“I still believe that we can get some of them alive. That’s our hope. We cannot give up because once we lose the hope, our efforts, eagerness to get them will go down,” he said.
On Tuesday, searchers found the body of Edwin Banawol, who had headed the local mining cooperative. It was brought up in a matter of minutes and received by friends and fellow miners who were waiting to take it to the command post.
Victorio Palangdan, the mayor of Itogon town, said rescuers were working under extreme circumstances, with lack of water and other supplies.
“Hopefully, we can recover all the victims,” he said.
Earlier, the mayor slammed the Benguet Corp., which had run a mining operation at the site. He said the company knew of a sinkhole there as early as 2015, but did not warn people to leave.
The local mining cooperative shares their proceeds with the company, in exchange for access to the mines.
Ma. Anna Vicendo-Montes, the assistant vice president of Benguet Corp., denied the accusation. She said the miners were involved in unregulated activities and operating without permission.
“The reason why they are linking the incident to us is because the illegal shanties were built in our land,” she said. “With respect to the mayor, that cannot be tolerated by Benguet Corporation because we have agreements with regulatory agencies.”
Itogon – a town known for its gold mines – is highly susceptible to landslides, according to the head of the Nationwide Operational Assessment of Hazards at the University of the Philippines.
“The primary factor is the steepness of the area. This is very mountainous terrain. One factor of being steep makes it unstable,” Mahar Lagmay said. “Gravity will try to pull it down. Since it was unstable, the excessive amount of rain was the one that triggered the landslide in that unstable slope.”
She said the incident only “needed a trigger” and that came in the form of heavy rainfall.
In Manila, presidential spokesman Harry Roque said that a plan to shut down all small-scale mining was meant to rehabilitate the environment, like what the Philippine government did with the country’s famous beach spot, Boracay.
“It’s very similar to what happened to Boracay. Right now, we’re committed to assist everyone that lost their jobs,” Roque said, adding the government should a find balance in ensuring that the environment was protected and while providing a livelihood to locals.
In April, Boracay island, a tourist hotspot in the central Philippines, was ordered shut for a massive six-month clean-up.
Aid offers from abroad
As Filipinos were still trying to find survivors and recover the dead, the United States and other countries offered to help the Philippines recover from the typhoon.
“Our thoughts are with those affected by Typhoon. The U.S., as a friend, partner, and ally of the Philippines, stands ready to assist,” Sung Kim, the American ambassador to Manila, said in a statement.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said his government was “ready to provide the maximum possible assistance including provision of emergency relief goods to the Philippines.”
“Like the Philippines, we fully understand the hardship caused by severe damages of typhoons. Japan always stands with the Philippines in overcoming this time of difficulties. I am deeply saddened and worried to learn the news that many precious lives were lost, many people are still missing and serious damages were brought in the northern Philippines,” Abe said.
Elsewhere, Chinese Premiere Xi Jinping said Beijing would help the Philippines recover, as he expressed sympathy to those injured, the bereaved families and the people in the affected area.
“China and the Philippines are friendly neighbors, and the Chinese people shared the sadness of the Philippine people over their sufferings, and are willing to help as much as possible,” Xi said.
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.