No more signs of life: 21 still missing in Natonin landslide

NATONIN, Mountain Province — No sign of life has been detected and 21 people are still missing at a landslide area here, where a building of the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH) was engulfed in mud and rainwater and crumbled in minutes at the height of Typhoon Rosita on Tuesday afternoon.

Town mayor Mateo L. Chiyawan said Friday the focus of the operations has been shifted from rescue to retrieval of bodies.

“We hope for miracles, but as you see the site, to me, it’s more of retrieval than rescue kasi talagang flattened naman, wala kang makitang victim (because the land has really flattened and you can’t see any survivor),” he said.

Some 200 personnel of the Philippine National Police (PNP), Armed Forces of the Philippines Army Reserve Command (AFP- ARESCOM), Bureau of Fire Protection (BFP), Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH), and community civilian rescue volunteers are currently searching for 21 more people, who were reported missing at the landslide area.

“For those who do not know the area, they would not think that there is a building existing there, kaya (that is why) I talked to the incident commander, the direction is retrieval,” Chiyawan explained to the Philippine News Agency (PNA).

The mayor said three groups have been doing the search since Thursday at the so-called ground zero, digging tons of rubbles.

The operatives have also installed black PVC pipes to have water from natural waterways flush the mud off the area, in the hope of finding buried bodies.

Presidential Communications Operations Office (PCOO) Assistant Secretary for Operations and Legislative Affairs Marie Rafael, former Natonin mayor, said that based on its topography, the town is prone to landslide, but the damage left by Typhoon Rosita is “over and above” what they had experienced in the past.

In the past, na-isolate naman kami, for a few weeks pa. But this time, more painful, kasi may casualties (We’ve been isolated in the past, even for weeks. But this time, it’s more painful because there are casualties),” she said.

Kung makikita niyo ang mga roads namin, prone sa landslide. Makita niyo naman, mountains (You can easily see our roads are prone to landslide. You see mountains). But it’s not as damaging as this one, not as painful as this one,” she added.

Multiple landslides isolating town

Several landslides of different magnitude have blocked both major highways leading to the town proper of Natonin.

The 22-km. road to Natonin from Paracelis town on the eastern side of Mountain Province had about 60 landslides to the ground zero.

Aside from this, many other bigger landslides on the 2-km. stretch going to the center of the town in Barangay Poblacion isolated the town proper, forcing people to walk two hours more to reach the area.

From Sitio Mangnao in Barangay Saliok alone, the PNA counted 31 landslides along the way to ground zero.

On Thursday, DPWH Regional Director Tiburcio Canlas said it might take a month before the roads can be fully cleared, although continuous road clearing is being done.

As of Nov. 2, vehicles can already reach ground zero.

The road from Bontoc town to Natonin, however, remains closed due to a road cut, which might take a longer time to restore.

It usually takes about three to four hours’ drive to travel this road on a normal day.

Caught off guard

“Landslides were multiple, almost every 50 meters. We have been used to this because whenever there is a typhoon, we are always affected. There were times when typhoons were twice stronger, but the damage was not like this,” Chiyawan noted.

“There were instances, when an area was declared under typhoon Signal No. 4, but the sun was shining. ‘Ompong’ was much stronger than ‘Rosita’ but this one has left us with so much damage,” the mayor added.

He said that because of past experiences, Natonin townspeople were caught off guard by “Rosita,” which did not only induce numerous landslides in town, but also claimed so many people’s lives.

As of Friday morning, eight deaths had been recorded in Natonin, he said.

“I admit we were lax because, before the day of the typhoon, the sun was shining here. In fact, we did not suspend classes. It was just normal to meet and alert the members of the disaster council for preparation,” Chiyawan related in mixed English and Filipino.

Barangay Poblacion is still isolated and people already need food, such as rice, and supplies, such as cooking gas.

Eyewitness accounts

Two people, who were unhurt in the landslide, were among those lucky to have been saved on Day 1. Jose Marie Valera Arocan, 35, from Villaviciosa, Abra and Erwin Aglocon of Leyte said they were outside the DPWH building when the major landslide happened.

Aglocon said he went out of the building after the first, small landslide to see where the loud sound was coming from. His fellow workers then went to the second floor, he said.

While outside, a bigger landslide occurred; then came the third, the biggest one, he continued.

“I saw it rolling down, so we ran away,” he said.

Aglocon and Arocan were both laborers of Moment Diagram Construction.

hey said they moved out of their “barracks” or the workers’ makeshift shelter beside a creek at about 8 a.m. on Monday, as it was already raining hard.

They said they and their fellow construction workers went to the DPWH structure, which they were still building, supposedly for safety, as the strong winds were already hitting the area.

“Our barracks was flooded, that’s why we evacuated and went to the DPWH building,” they recounted.

The landslide hit and buried the three buildings of the DPWH’s second engineering district compound.

After the landslide, by Tuesday evening, no trace of the then still being constructed DPWH building with multiple storeys could be seen.

From that exact area, seven bodies were retrieved, while 21 others are still missing and believed to be dead.