CAGAYAN DE ORO CITY—Guillermo Uriarte hung on for dear life as he swam then floated on a wave of mud that carried him from his flood-devastated riverside home in Cagayan de Oro to Macajalar Bay off the coast of El Salvador 20 kilometers away.
He was barely breathing when rescuers plucked him from the sea. He told the Philippine Daily Inquirer he had started to swim at 11 a.m. At some point, he said he was carried away by the current and reached El Salvador 12 hours later.
But the extraordinary escape from death’s clutches offered scant comfort to the 32-year-old appliance salesman, as he mounted a frantic search for his wife and three children who got separated from him at the height of the storm.
He was not alone.
On Day 3, as locals continued reeling from the effects of Tropical Storm “Sendong,” which laid to waste vast sections of Northern Mindanao, the focus shifted from ensuring their survival to finding, retrieving and burying the unfortunate scores who did not make it.
“I feel that I was saved only so that I can find them,” a distraught Uriarte said of his wife Rosalyn and their children, Jhean Russel, 11, and Jill Anne Rose, 7. He had not found them yet when he talked to the Inquirer Monday.
The Philippine Red Cross (PRC) put the death toll from the storm’s weekend onslaught at more than 700 late Monday night, with about 900 others listed as missing. The Department of Health (DOH) officially listed 533 fatalities and 239 missing, according to the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council.
Health officials in Manila and in Cagayan de Oro debated whether they should first help the National Bureau of Investigation identify the bodies before burying them.
“We do not recommend mass burials,” said Dr. Eric Tayag, a DOH director in Manila. “The families should be able to mourn and bury their dead.”
Dumped at landfill
But local officials concerned with health risks from rotting cadavers had begun preparing common graves.
At least 40 unidentified and rotting bodies were dumped into the city’s sanitary landfill to await mass burial, said Senior Superintendent Jesus Vinluan.
He said the bodies had been left lying along a corridor and two rooms of Bollozos Funeral Homes, which announced it could no longer accommodate them.
At Barangay (village) Pala-o, officials began digging up a 45-square-meter concrete grave in the village cemetery where 100 or so unidentified bodies were to be deposited.
Teresita Badiang-Herrera of the city mayor’s office said the local government would ensure that the burial ground would be “dignified.”
She said she understood the qualms of families who did not want their dead buried in a mass grave but the urgency of the situation demanded drastic measures.
“We don’t want a health problem in our hands,” Herrera said.
She said it was not only the community’s physical health they sought to protect but also its psychological state.
“When they smell the bodies in their villages, it will only serve to remind people of the tragedy. And even if it’s no longer the dead that they smell, any rotten smell would evoke sad memories,” Herrera said.
Mass burial in Iligan
A similar move was being undertaken in Iligan City. “Today, we will dig a mass grave and bury the unclaimed bodies as well as those in an advanced state of decomposition,” said Mayor Lawrence Cruz.
Up to 50 of about 300 bodies recovered in Iligan since Sendong struck early Saturday morning will be placed in a common grave, Cruz said in a TV interview.
The bodies awaiting burial were wrapped in white plastic bags bound tightly with tan-colored packaging tape.
The mayor said funeral homes were already crammed with unclaimed corpses and were now turning away newly recovered dead.
But he told reporters later in the day that he had abandoned plans for a mass grave when told of Manila’s position on the issue ahead of a visit by President Benigno Aquino III. He said individual tombs would be built instead.
The Inquirer chanced upon Uriarte on a visit to a funeral parlor in neighboring Laguindingan town.
His trips to 10 funeral parlors in Cagayan de Oro had been for naught, Uriarte said, recalling the pain and discomfort of looking for familiar faces from the sea of bloated, stinking bodies that piled up in memorial centers there.
As a result, city officials arranged for the corpses to be deposited at the sanitary landfill in Barangay Carmen—not to be buried there but to be doused with formaldehyde and embalmed.
A barangay official said villagers could not bear the smell of the corpses in various states of decomposition and worried that the flies they attracted might spread disease.
But not Orlando Medrano, who watched in stoic silence as his 16-year-old daughter Nica was treated for burial.
Medrano, a glass installer from Isla de Oro, said it was ironic that he had managed to save four of his female neighbors when he failed to look after his own child.
“We could do nothing. I had my 3-year-old daughter Xyza strapped to my chest, but I could not watch my other children,” he said.
In Upper Hinaplanon in Iligan, Ibrahim Alawi, a 35-year-old family driver, found a solution.
Moments before the walls of water reduced his house to rubble, he hastily tied together long-sleeved shirts, tightened them around his wife and four children and attached them to his waist as anchor.
“We climbed the roof of the mosque where we held on,” he said.
Elsewhere, the desperate search for loved ones continued.
From Iligan City, Rogelio Amado, a government watchman, traveled to Cagayan de Oro in search of the family of his sister Rosa Amado-Varana, 37, who, along with her family of four, had disappeared on Bayug Island.
“Almost everything was wiped out on Bayug. Only a few houses are still standing,” Amado said, shaking his head.
There was no dearth of stories in this city of 100,000, from a pet that helped a family find the body of its owner to a house that became the haven of 30 people.
Imra-Ali Sabdullah, president of a homeowners association in Upper Hinaplanon, recalled how a dog made distressed sounds near a clump of banana trees.
He said the family had been looking for an elderly man whom he could only identify by his surname “Lagrimas.”
“The dog would not move away from that spot. It was shaking its head and whimpering, so I told them ‘look in that area where the dog is,’” Sabdullah said.
They found the man an hour later.
At a subdivision in Barangay Santiago, a pink two-story house served as refuge to more than 30 people whose own homes had been swept away by the swollen Mandulog River.
The owner, Edmund Rubio, 44, said he just kept opening the door to anyone who knocked until 30 people were huddled on the roof of his house.
“I didn’t have the heart to turn anyone away. In times like that we only have each other to turn to,” he said. With reports from Philip C. Tubeza and Jaymee T. Gamil in Manila; and JB R. Deveza, Ryan D. Rosauro, Aquiles Z. Zonio and Bobby Lagsa, Inquirer Mindanao