Philippines landslide: ‘At least he was in one piece’

Itogon, Philippines – Mary Jane Baccodong had to steel herself to deliver her sermon at a church service on Sunday morning, and held back the urge to break down.

The anxious preacher just learned about the massive landslide that slammed into Ucab village the day before, and she was almost certain that her father, Andrew Tagapong, was there.

Communication lines went dead as Super Typhoon Mangkhut barrelled through the mountainous Cordillera region of the Philippines on Saturday, and news of the catastrophe flooded in the following day.

As soon as the service ended, Baccodong made the seven-hour journey through treacherous mountain roads from her home in Kalinga province to this town in Benguet province, where hundreds of rescuers were already digging through mud, boulders and debris in a desperate attempt to find survivors.

“I kept praying that somehow my father would turn up alive,” Baccodong told Al Jazeera.

But she knew no other place her father could have been; his life revolved around his grinding mill at the bottom of the ravine.

Tagapong had been a miner for more than 50 years, first as an employee of the giant Benguet Corporation. After he was laid off in 1975, he tried farming for a few years. It was unprofitable, so he went back to mining, setting up his own informal enterprise in 1982.

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The underground gold trade provided for Tagapong and his family, but not enough to make him a wealthy man.

At 74, Tagapong still worked his mill every day in order to survive, which was why he and many other mining families remained in Ucab despite local officials warning them to evacuate ahead of the storm.

Deadly deluge

On Saturday morning, the deluge from Mangkhut caused the mountain slope on which the village stood to give way, triggering a sludgy torrent that engulfed everything in its path, including the three-storey bunkhouse where some 70 people were taking shelter, mostly itinerant miners and their families.

Baccodong had been waiting three days for news of her father when the forensics team summoned her to the makeshift mortuary at the top of the gorge where retrievers were digging for bodies and body parts.

She did not need to look closely at the corpse to see it was her father.

“I recognised him by his favourite sweatshirt, the one that I gave him as a present,” Baccodong said. “In a way, I am glad. He was wearing my gift, and at least they found him in one piece.”

Of the three known survivors from the landslide Ranier Baldazan was the last to leave the hospital.

When Al Jazeera interviewed him by his bed in the surgery ward on Wednesday, the scrapes and wounds all over his face and body had already dried, but his left eye was still bloodshot. A bandage covered his left eyebrow.

The muddy deluge had hit him hard on the chest and it took him considerable effort to speak, but the young truck driver was eager to tell his story.

He was actually safe and dry when some villagers rushed to him for help. The mountain had just given way and if they hurried, they could still save some of their neighbours.

They wanted him to bring out the backhoe and scoop people out of the sludge.

“Of course, I had to ask my boss if it was alright that I use his equipment. But I was going to help, one way or another,” he said.

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His boss said “yes” and Baldazan drove the backhoe against the current.

“I was confident because it was a large truck. I thought it was going to be easy,” he said.

‘Flushed down’

He was able to manoeuvre around the mess for a good two or three hours before the backhoe started getting stuck. All the while, it was raining hard and there was a ceaseless flood coming down the mountain.

When he stepped out of the truck to save himself, he lost his footing and fell into the flood, head first.

“I felt as though I was being flushed down the cliff. But because I was conscious, I knew I had a chance to survive. I tried to swim and wiggle so that it was my legs, not my head, that were underwater.”

He surfaced somewhere down the ravine, about 50 metres from the backhoe.

There were 12 of them who tried to save the villagers, he recalled, but only two made it out alive.

Beaten up and bedridden, Baldazan found himself reliving the ordeal, wondering if it was worth it – or if he could have done better.

“I didn’t imagine this could happen, but then I would rather have it this way,” he said.

“I wouldn’t be able to live with myself – seeing those people fighting for their lives – if I didn’t at least try to do something to help them.”

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