Survivor’s account of Pantukan landslide: “The house rolled over, I rolled over”

PANTUKAN, Compostela Valley (MindaNews/23 April) –  Rico Clase was awakened by a “kusog nga buto” (loud explosion) shortly before 3 a.m. on Good Friday but before he could get up to find out what it was, the bunkhouse made of light materials had been swept away.  “Nagligid-ligid ang balay, nagligid-ligid ko” (the house rolled over, I rolled over).

“Kalit ra nibuto ang yuta” (suddenly, the slope collapsed).

An abantero (forward digger) for eight years now at the small-scale mining site, Clase said he rolled down the ridge for what he reckons to be around 30 minutes. The 29-year old bachelor willed himself to live, slowly finding his way up until he reached the road and hailed a habal-habal (motorcycle) to bring him to the Pantukan District Hospital, arriving here at 6:30 a.m.

A resident of Caraga town in Davao Oriental, Clase told MindaNews  there were about 20 persons sleeping in the five bunkhouses in the ballmill area but as far as he knows, only three of them had managed to get out alive.

The landslide in Side B, Sitio Panganason, Barangay Kingking cut a wide swath of destruction across 500 meters down from the ridgeline. The MDRRMC reported about a hectare was affected.

As of 6 p.m. Friday, only one had been confirmed to have died, 19 of the 40 earlier reported missing had been accounted for, and nine had been rescued, Lt. Col. Camilo Ligayo, chief of the  Philippine Army’s 71st Infantry Battalion said in his 6:30 p.m. briefing to Maj. Gen. Jorge Segovia, chief of the 10th Infantry Division,  at the tent housing the Incident Command Post of the Municipal Disaster Response and Risk Management Council (MDRRMC) fronting the municipal hall here.

Of the nine, seven had been brought to the district hospital here and the bigger hospitals in Tagum City.

As of 11 a.m. Saturday, the numbers have not changed.

Clase, who was among those listed as “rescued,” sustained minor injuries on both arms and the right side of his face.

Also injured were Lambert Detros, 47 and Zeffrey Tunday, 15, both of Barangay Matiao, Pantukan;  Jerry Costal, 21, of Lasang Davao City; Erwin Galorio, 20, of Samal City in Davao del Norte; Mike Saret, 30, of Asuncion in Davao del Norte; Rebecca Recaplaza, 46,  a purok chair in Panganason. Two others – Jonathan Bilan of Magnaga, Pantukan and Joel Lapates of Bukidnon, were also rescued but stayed on in the minesite.

21 Missing

Sr. Supt. Aaron Aquino, provincial police director, told Segovia that the 21 missing persons are “all miners.”

He said the list of 21 was made by the  barangay officials based on the account of residents in the area.

Of the 21 missing, not one is a resident of Pantukan although most are from neighboring cities. five from Panabo City; four each from Tagum City, Bukidnon and Davao City;  three from Samal City; one from Maco.

The following have been reported missing: Bernard and Bobit Celestial of Tagum City; Cristitoto Torrejos, Sr. and Cristitoto Torrejos, Jr., of Coambugan, Tagum City, the father and brother of the slain 15-year old Jun Rex; Dennis of  Bukidnon, Andy, Junel and Vincent, all surnamed Lapates, also of Bukidnon; Jerico of Davao City, Alvin and Noe Caningoy of Davao City and Bitoy of Lasang, Davao City; Jongjong, Junjun and Erning of Samal City; Jay Omega of Maco and Panabo City residents Marjun Guilabtan, Brendo Dani, Relieto Tabay, Roberto Ynay andMarvin Anglai.

Undetermined number

Mayor Celso Sarenas told MindaNews that residents in the minesite had been repeatedly warned to vacate the area but they refused claiming they would rather die working there than die of hunger.

He said a number of them even signed waivers that they would not hold the local government accountable should anything happen to them.

He said this is not the first time a landslide occurred in the area but this is the worst, thus far.

Most of the residents in the area are “transients.”

The affected sitio has a population of 60 households or about 330 persons but the area of incident reportedly had about 14 shanties.

Like previous landslides in small-scale mining sites in gold-rich Compostela Valley province since the gold rush in 1983-1984,  the number of  those buried in landslides is difficult to determine.

Alfer Corpuz,  an employee of the mayor’s office who rushed to the landslide site early Friday morning, said barangay officials estimated 32 persons may have been buried in the slide.

But there could still be more, Corpuz said, adding that on Maundy Thursday, there was a “padugo,” a ritual that involves slaughtering a chicken or pig and letting its blood drip in the tunnel for good luck or thanksgiving. Corpuz said many of those who attended the “padugo” stayed for the night.

Lambert Detros of Barangay Matiao, who suffered injuries on he left side of his shoulder went up to the minesite, according to his sister,  to attend the “pakaon,” a celebration for good blessings, timed when the accumulated ore is processed into gold.

Three helicopters – one from the Philippine Air Force’s 505th Search and Rescue Squadron and two Hueys from the Tactical Operations Group based in Davao City, did seven sorties to the landslide site Friday, Ligayo said in his briefing.

The helicopters ferried troops,  rescuers, health personnel and two K-9 tracking dogs. Rebecca Recaplaza, 29, a purok chair, who was rescued from the tunnel, was airlifted to the poblacion of Pantukan where an ambulance was waiting. She was initially brought to the district hospital but was referred to the regional hospital in Tagum due to head injuries.

The MDRRMC’s response to the God Friday tragedy was quick. It set up an operations center fronting the town hall. A tent housing the Incident Command Post was set up by the Civil-Military Operations of the 10th Infantry Division, complete with laptops, a printer-scanner-photocopier machine, an LCD projector and screen, and whiteboards containing the latest updates. It also doubled as a Media Center.

A few meters away,  personnel from the Social Welfare, Health, and the Red Cross set up their operations on the municipal stage.

“Balik sa uno”

Clase says he will not return to the minesite that has provided for his needs the past eight years. Not for now.

“Balik na pud ko sa uno ani” (I’ll have to start from one again), he said.

Before he became an “abantero,” Clase was a “konduktor” — a dispatcher, collector and assistant of a jeepney driver- and was actually thinking of going to Cebu to seek greener pastures when a relative arrived and enticed him to join him in the minesite.

Although their earnings are not on a daily or monthly basis, Clase said he would sometimes earn P10,000 or P30,000 but these days, he only earns about P5,000.  They get paid when their financier reaches a certain quota. The last payment he received recently was P5,000 but it was “dugay kaayo nakuha na” (it took so long to get that).  Around five months, he said.

Life as an abantero is fraught with danger. Protective gears are unheard of although Clase says “kung horror ang lungag di man ka pasudlon” (if the tunnel is extremely dangerous, you won’t be allowed to enter).

Clase said he will likely return to his hometown in Caraga, Davao Oriental and decide later whether he would return to the minesite or find another means of livelihood.

He does not think the rains brought the landslide. Thursday’s rain, he said, was from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. but it wasn’t a downpour.

He said nothing when the mayor, who checked on the injured at the hospital, talked about their having been repeatedly warned to vacate the area.

“Trahedya lang gyud to” (It was just a tragedy), he said when the mayor left.  (Carolyn O. Arguillas/MindaNews)