“We have two more bodies to identify,” an official told the crowd through a megaphone as they lined up in the sweltering heat Tuesday.
All afternoon the relatives of those believed to have been killed in a massive landslide in the northern Philippines have waited for news.
As hopes faded for the recovery of any additional survivors, many were just hoping to identify their loved ones’ bodies and bring closure to the agonizing wait they had endured.
Tuesday marked three days since the partial collapse of a mountainside in the wake of Super Typhoon Mangkhut saw tons of mud and rocks pour onto the mining town of Itogon, in the Cordillera region of northern Luzon Island.
The rockfall destroyed hundreds of homes and buried dozens of people, mostly miners who worked in small-scale mines and their families.
As of Wednesday morning, 18 bodies had been recovered from the site and identified by relatives. Some were buried by the mud, others thrown from their homes during the landslide. Only three people have been rescued from under the rubble alive.
As many as dozens are believed to still be under the rubble, but accurate headcounts were hard to come by, hindering rescue efforts.
Those efforts were centered on a partially submerged former miners’ bunkhouse, believed to have been used by families as a storm shelter during the typhoon.
Unable to bring in heavy machinery due to the terrain, teams used hands and shovels for the difficult, grueling excavation work.
’As days go on, hope disappears’
Since Saturday, dozens of family members have gathered at a staging area up the road from where the landslide happened.
One, 49-year-old Alex Binwag of Ifugao province – geographically close, but an almost six-hour drive along twisting, mountain roads away – had gathered with four other members of his family to await news of his cousin, 25-year-old Jeffery Licyauo.
Licyauo had been mining in the area for five years, Binwag said, adding that as time continues to pass, his family just wants some word on his cousin’s fate.
“As the days go on, hope disappears,” he said.
Noemi Gelera, 59, was hopeful her grandson Jerome Pillann survived the landslide.
“I am hoping” she said. “All I want is to see his body and give him a proper burial if he didn’t survive.”
When she first heard about the landslide she immediately traveled to the area. The waiting has been “heavy,” she said.
’We will not lose hope’
Earlier Tuesday, Cordillera Regional Director of the Bureau of Fire Protection Lilibeth Simangan told CNN that the teams – consisting of local search and rescue teams and volunteers, alongside specialists from the capital, Manila, the Philippines National Police and the military – had not given up hope that they will find survivors.
“We are very optimistic that we can finish this with the assistance of all the sectors, of the military and civilian side, as well as the local government units,” she said.
“We are still hoping, of course we will not lose hope … on the first day we were able to rescue about three alive.”
Initially the recovered bodies had been carried up the hill in a two-hour hike, but rescuers devised a rope system which enabled them to pull the remains of those found up to where family members were waiting for news. Supplies to the teams down at the site were also sent down the rope system.
“Today we still don’t know the number but there are cadavers ready to be pulled up,” Simangan said.
Storm toll rises
Philippines Presidential spokesman Harry Roque said earlier on Tuesday that Mangkhut had left 63 people dead, 42 injured and dozens missing as it cut a destructive streak across Luzon, the country’s largest and most populous island.
While emergency signals were raised for the effective areas ahead of the storm’s approach, locals said they were shocked by the degree of the devastation.
“This is the first time I’ve seen this kind of landslide. It’s massive, and almost everyone is affected. Even the miners are helping the rescuers, the police – everyone is giving their best,” one rescuer said.
On Monday, as rescuers scrambled to find the missing, Environment Secretary Roy Cimatu ordered a stop to all small-scale mining operations in the Cordillera region, according to CNN affiliate CNN Philippines.
Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte would visit the province of Isabela later today, Roque said. Isabela itself didn’t suffer any casualties but was heavily damaged.