35 dead, dozens feared buried in Benguet landslide

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(Photo courtesy: PRO Cordillera)

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, September 17) — At least 35 people have died in a landslide in a Benguet town known for its mining activities, authorities said on Monday.

Rescuers have retrieved the bodies of the 35 people buried under thick mud when the landslide occurred in Itogon, Benguet on Saturday afternoon. Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque said authorities are trying to rescue 42 more, who are possibly composed of miners and their families.

The retrieved bodies were blessed Monday evening.

And, while most of the bodies were already identified by their relatives, authorities will still need to process these before being turned over to their loved ones.

"Hindi tayo titigil hanggang hindi natin naa-account ang lahat po ng nawawala," Roque said in a media briefing in Benguet.

Army Disaster Response Unit Commander Lt. Col. Joel Sobrera said, "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."

[Translation: I still believe that we could still rescue more people. That's our hope. We cannot give up because once we lose that hope, our effort and eagerness will diminish also.]

The landslide site is an abandoned mining area of a huge company, but authorities say small-scale miners took over after its closure in 2009.

On Saturday, a portion of that mountain collapsed when Typhoon Ompong battered Northern Luzon.

The combination of soil, mud and rocks swept a community and buried two buildings plus a chapel.

Itogon Mayor Vic Palangdan said the structure where the miners sought refuge was stable as it was made of cement and wood.

"It is really livable, pero malaking tipak ng bundok ang tumabon sa kanya," he told CNN Philippines on Monday. He added the miners resisted preemptive evacuation conducted by the authorities.

Armed Forces of the Philippines Northern Luzon Lt.Gen Emmanuel Salamat said the heavy and nonstop rains brought by Typhoon Ompong softened the soil.

"The density was already exceeded by three times, so malabot na ang soil. That's why this caused a landslide," he told CNN Philippines.

President Rodrigo Duterte has ordered a ban on open-pit mining amid its negative impact on the environment, which could lead to deadly landslides.

"Now I'm really having second thoughts about the mining industry. You've witnessed it first hand because you've been extorting from them. They have made holes in our mountains. Everywhere you look, there are holes made by mining. When it rains, the holes will store the rain water. It will soften the soil and cause landslides. That's what's really happening there," he said in a speech in February.

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).

Related: DENR orders halt to small-scale mining in Cordillera

Salamat also said the victims sought refuge in an old bunkhouse which was transformed to a church. 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.

Meanwhile, Duterte — who outspokenly slams the Church — blamed a priest for the tragic incident.

"Nag-collapse yung church... Alam ninyo, kung pinalitan ninyo 'yung pari diyan, hindi magbagsak 'yung simbahan diyan. Bobo 'yung mga pari," he said on Sunday.

Roque defended Duterte, saying he believes the president's remark was a joke.