Miners dig for their own in Itogon landslide

Purple Romero and Cecil Morella, Agence France-Presse

Posted at Sep 18 2018 11:49 PM | Updated as of Sep 20 2018 06:14 PM

Miners dig for their own in Itogon landslide 1
Volunteers use their hands as they search for victims under the rubble in Itogon, Benguet on September 17, 2018. Jonathan Cellona, ABS-CBN News

The miners in the mountains of the 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 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-kilometer 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 Dumugdog needed 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."

Miners dig for their own in Itogon landslide 2
A volunteer takes a breather at the site of the landslide in Itogon, Benguet on September 17,2018. Jonathan Cellona, ABS-CBN News

'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, adding they are an asset because of expertise at tunnelling.

"All belong to the same profession and doing this gives them comfort, knowing they could count on this same kind of help," he added.

It will be an excruciatingly slow effort to clear the site of debris. Because the slide destroyed roads going into the area, no heavy equipment has been able to reach the site.

The government said it has sent a two-dozen-strong rescue team with high-tech life-detecting devices. 

But Tuesday was already the fourth day after the slide and while officials spoke of a possible miracle, the miners were more somber.

"It hurts a lot," said 27-year-old Jonathan Dunuan. "I will continue digging until all of the bodies have been found."