DAVAO CITY (MindaNews / 31 August) – The four alleged gold treasure hunters trapped inside a narrow vertical tunnel with a depth of 96 feet that collapsed on Sunday morning were feared dead and retrieval operations have been launched to recover their remains in Purok 1, Barangay Kinamayan in Santo Tomas town, Davao del Norte, an official said Monday.
In a phone interview, Mart Sambalud, Santo Tomas information officer, said that Ho Ang, the lone survivor in the incident, recounted that the timbers supporting the tunnel partially collapsed an hour after they descended around 8 a.m.
He said that Ang managed to climb his way out after the tunnel caved in for the second time at 10 a.m., while his companions, identified as Gerick Marquez, 23, and Dindo Pañares and Rustom Rancho, both 18 years old, and a 17-year-old boy, were left trapped under the ground.
Sambalud said the parents of the victims thought that their children were working for a banana plantation in the province.
He said that the municipal government was alerted about the incident around 1 p.m. Sunday after the failed rescue attempts conducted by the officials of Barangay Kinamayan.
A specialized rescue team from various government agencies was immediately organized to rescue the victims, he added.
At 11:34 p.m. Sunday, the victims were “presumed dead” since the rescuers detected no “signs of life” using an acoustic sensor, Sambalud said.
“The men could be dead because of the lack of oxygen in the collapsed tunnel,” he said, adding that retrieval operations resumed around 6 a.m. Monday.
He said that heavy equipment, including two backhoes, were dispatched to the site to excavate an area close to the tunnel, through which the responders would enter.
He said the entrance of the tunnel was unstable and dangerous for the rescuers to enter.
Sambalud said that authorities learned that the financier of the alleged treasure hunting activity was a relative of Hernan Castañares, the owner of the property where the tunnel was found.
Citing the neighborhood, Sambalud said the digging of the tunnel began last March but was halted in April after the residents complained.
The tunnel excavation, which was not granted a permit, resumed three days before the incident, he added.
Sambalud said the local government is looking to file charges against those behind the illegal treasure hunting activity.