4 sisters buried in slide after spending New Year with father
The life of Bernard Tolentino is typical of the hundreds of people who try their luck in a gold rush site in Pantukan, Compostela Valley.
It was until Thursday when a landslide struck a community of shanties in Barangay Napnapan and killed 27 people including all of Tolentino’s children—four girls.
The girls—Ivy, 14; Bea, 6; Mimi 10; and Chona, 9—had been waiting for their father in a shack that Tolentino built in Napnapan and which he briefly left to put in extra work in a mining tunnel in nearby Boringot village.
It was extra work that Tolentino, a widower, needed to have money for his girls to use in school and which they could bring home to Magnaga village, after spending New Year’s Day with their father.
Tolentino shares his grief with dozens of other families who lost loved ones in the disaster that authorities said was “waiting to happen.”
Relatives recounted how close he became to the girls when his wife died, forcing him to leave the children in the care of a relative while he tried to eke out a living digging for gold in tunnels and seizing the chance to be with the girls when it came.
The chance came last Dec. 28 when Tolentino fetched the girls from Magnaga to spend New Year’s Day with him in Napnapan.
Ritchell Estandarte, a relative, recalled the reunion of father and daughters. She recalled constantly reminding Tolentino that he needed to bring the girls back. “I told him if he didn’t return the girls, they have to stop going to school,” Ritchell, married to the brother of Tolentino’s wife, recalled telling Tolentino when he came to pick up his children.
“Now they’re not coming back anymore,” said Ritchell.
The girls’ bodies were among the first to be found among the debris that the landslide left in its wake along with dreams of striking it rich in the gold rush area.
Work for Tolentino was a matter of life and death, according to relatives.
They said the family was so poor that Tolentino’s daughters qualified to become beneficiaries of the government’s conditional cash transfer, a program that hands out money to the poorest of the poor.
At the funeral home on Pantukan Highway where the girls were taken, relatives had difficulty identifying the disfigured bodies.
“Maybe this is Bea, the youngest. Maybe that is Mimi,” said Ritchell. “We could hardly recognize them.”
It was uncertain whether it still mattered to Tolentino that he and hundreds of others in Napnapan are to be evicted soon as ordered by the government.
The government, according to Interior Secretary Jesse Robredo, had decided to use force to move up to 20,000 people out of the area.
Robredo said the forced eviction was a direct order from President Aquino and should have been enforced in two weeks by the Army and police.
The government, Robredo said, was bent on enforcing the eviction order this time. “It was clear from what happened that there were lapses because the law was not enforced,” he said.
“The next thing is to determine why. Whether it was because the government was not strong enough to enforce it,” he said.
Robredo, who took a helicopter trip to view the disaster area, said what he saw was “an accident waiting to happen”: shanties perched precariously on edges of steep slopes and mountainsides stripped of trees and vegetation.
Eviction difficult to enforce
Senior Supt. Timoteo Pacleb, Compostela Valley police chief, said the landslide left a gash 300-meters long, 60-meters wide and 150-meters deep on one side of the mountain.
Robredo said gold processing plants would be dismantled and transferred to the lowlands “so there would be no reason anymore for bunkhouses or shanties to be built at the mining sites.”
Processing plant owners, he said, have three months to heed the directive.
Local officials said at least 20,000 people have made the mining site in Barangay Napnapan, about a third of the 56,000-hectare area of the town, their home.
Arturo Uy, Compostela Valley governor, said at least 1,000 tunnels had been dug in the entire town including illegal ones.
Arnulfo Lantaya, spokesperson of the municipal government of Pantukan, said the eviction order would be difficult to enforce, though.
“I told the secretary (Robredo) that it is easy to say ‘close the tunnels and bring people down,’ but it is hard to do,” Lantaya said.
The municipal government, he said, was undermanned and can’t afford the costs of moving that many people out of Barangay Napnapan.
Local government employees who would enforce the order, said Lantayan, “will be at risk once the police and military have left the area.”
Lantaya, however, declined comment on reports that local government officials were involved in mining, too.
Col. Roberto Domines, head of the Army’s 1001st Infantry Brigade, said soldiers were ready to enforce the order.
The local government, according to Lantaya, does not consider the closure of mining tunnels in the town a big loss. He said the town coffers receive only from P3,000 to P4,000 per tunnel each year.
“There are only around 300 legal tunnels and we don’t earn much from them,” he said.
A previous order to evict people from danger zones in mining areas in the province in the towns of Monkayo, Mabini, Nabunturan, Pantukan, Mako and Compostela had been all but enforced.
The disaster has left at least seven people missing, according to police, correcting an earlier report that up to 100 could not be accounted for. Rescuers continued the search for the missing yesterday.
“Chaos and confusion immediately set in and various sources gave the conflicting figures,” said Colonel Domines.
Lt. Col. Lyndon Paniza said the search for survivors won’t stop. “We’re not losing hope. We will not shift to (corpse) retrieval mode until 72 hours had passed,” he said.
Gov. Uy admitted the provincial government had “shortcomings in the implementation” of the previous order to remove human settlements in danger zones.
He said while the latest eviction order was difficult to enforce, the provincial government would do it just the same.
“You can imagine how hard it is to convince these people to abandon mining,” said Uy. “Even if you give these miners lands to farm, they would still go to the mountains to dig for gold,” he said.
Colonel Domines supported Uy’s statement. He said when authorities tried to enforce the previous eviction order, “the miners would play a cat-and-mouse game with the local government.”
The urgency to move out, however, was highlighted by the continued falling of rocks and debris from the top of the mountain, according to Elenita Traya, a midwife helping in relief operations.
“We continue to hear warning signs from above us,” she said. “Which means rocks continue to fall and there was still a threat that the soil would collapse.”
Renato Solidum, head of the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology (Phivolcs), said the area struck by the landslide had been battered by “bulldozing and other activities.”
He said when he studied the topography of the area through a map, he found the conditions for a disaster ripe.
“You’re just waiting for the trigger,” said Solidum, a geologist.
The landslide struck on a clear day which was deceptive, he said. People should be taught that landslides could happen even days after the rains had stopped, he added.
“If the weather is clear, they should not assume that there’s no danger,” said Solidum in a phone interview.
In the case of Pantukan, he said, “there was a lag time between rain and landslide.”
“That is another thing people should watch out for,” he said. TJ Burgonio in Manila with Inquirer wires