Rescuers, volunteers manually retrieve 18 bodies in buried bunkhouse in Itogon

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  • With their bare hands, shovels, and some power tools, rescuers and volunteers dig through the thick mud that buried a bunkhouse in Barangay Ucab in Itogon, Benguet.

Itogon, Benguet (CNN Philippines, September 18) — With just their bare hands, shovels, and some power tools, some 200 rescuers and volunteers on Tuesday continued to dig through the mud that buried a miners' bunkhouse in Itogon, Benguet, hoping to find up to 60 people who remain missing and are feared entombed in the site.

Rescue operations were nonstop since Sunday, but authorities had so far retrieved only 18 bodies from the abandoned mining site of Benguet Corporation in Barangay Ucab in Itogon. A landslide buried the bunkhouse-turned-church where small-scale miners and their families sought refuge as Typhoon Ompong battered northern Luzon on Saturday.

Retrieval operations faced many challenges since heavy equipment could not be brought to the site, forcing rescuers to work manually. Rescuers were also unfamiliar with the structure of the bunkhouse and had to depend on locals to  work their way around the area.

There has been no sign of life but families continue to hope for good news. Authorities are also not giving up in finding survivors as soon as they can get access inside a previously closed mining tunnel.

"I still believe na may makukuha pa kaming buhay. Kasi yan ang hope namin e. Hindi tayo pwedeng mag-give-up kasi once we lose that hope, bababa na din ang effort, eagerness mo magkuha," Army Disaster Response Unit Commander Lt. Col. Joel Sobrera said.

Itogon Mayor Vic Palangdan said the miners and their families declared the structure their evacuation site without the permission of the local government and disaster officials.

"They were advised to move out because that is a hazardous area during typhoons, it might kill them and it really happened," he said on Monday.

Benguet Corporation said the small-scale miners have been illegally operating on their land. It said it has suspended its mining operations in the area in 1997.

"Their unregulated mining activities are without permission of the company... During the period of suspension, the Antamok (in Itogon) mines was gradually enroached by small-scale operations," it said in a statement.

Palangdan said he previously issued a stop order to small-scale miners, but said he had no police power to enforce it. He also claimed Benguet Corporation gave authorization to the small-scale miners to use their abandoned tunnels. The company denied it, saying they do not have the power to do so.

"Kaya kami kino-connect diyan ay dahil ang kinatatayuan ng mga illegal shanties ay pag-aari ng kompanya. With respect to the mayor, iyan ay hindi pwedeng gawin ng Benguet Corporation sapagkat kami ay may kasunduan sa regulatory agencies. Bilang isang responsableng mining company, hindi kami pwede gumawa ng ganyang kasunduan," Benguet Corp. AVP Ma. Anna Vicedo-Montes told CNN Philippines.

Environment Secretary Roy Cimatu said the catastrophic landslide was a "wake-up call," which is why he ordered the stoppage of all small-scale mining in the Cordillera Administrative Region (CAR).

Palangdan said he worries about the environmental state of Itogon, saying he hopes the community could soon shift from the mining industry to focusing on agriculture.

The police said 74 deaths have been recorded in the country due to Ompong. The casualty count in the entire town of Itogon has reached 35 and up to 60 remain missing. Most were caused by landslides.

UP NOAH (University of the Philippines-Nationwide Operational Assessment of Hazards) Executive Director Mahar Lagmay said Itogon - known for its mining activities - is highly susceptible to landslides.

"The primary factor is the steepness of the area. This is very mountainous terrain. One factor of being steep makes it unstable. 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. What happened there it was really of high potential... but it needed a trigger. The trigger was [the rainfall]," he told CNN Philippines' The Source on Tuesday.

Disater officials said New Zealand, Japan, Singapore, Thailand, United Kingdom, Australia, Switzerland, South Korea, and United States have offered help for Ompong-affected communities.