Search, retrieval ops for trapped gold hunters in Davao Norte halted

DAVAO CITY (MindaNews / 8 Sep) – The municipal government of Santo Tomas in Davao del Norte has ceased the search and retrieval operations on Tuesday for the cadavers of four “treasure hunters” buried inside a 96-foot tunnel in Purok 1 in Barangay Kinamayan when it caved in shortly after they entered it last August 30.

Barangay Kinamayan in Santo Tomas town, Davao del Norte, where four gold hunters were trapped in a tunnel as it collapsed. Map courtesy of Google

In a joint statement issued by the municipal government and the Incident Management Team (IMT), the operations were immediately called off following the technical assessment conducted by the extrication team who found out that the continued digging could pose more risks due to the instability of the tunnel, which was “submerged in groundwater.”

On August 31, or a day after the tunnel collapsed, the municipal government immediately deployed heavy equipment to excavate the area close to the tunnel in an attempt to recover the bodies of the treasure hunters who were looking for gold.

But the assessment team said the continued excavation could endanger the lives of the responders and the nearby residents.

The tunnel was situated within the property of Hernan Castañares, a relative of the financier of the expedition, according to Mart Sambalud, Santo Tomas information officer.

“The IMT carried out a technical assessment of the excavation efforts and had come to the conclusion that the search and retrieval effort are untenable and very dangerous,” the statement said.

It added that the Sangguniang Barangay of Kinamayan submitted a manifesto or a public declaration to the IMT urging for immediate stoppage of the excavation due to the “ground instability” that could risk more lives.

Among the members of IMT include Davao del Norte Gov. Edwin Jubahib, Kapalong Mayor Ma. Theresa Timbol, and Barangay Kinamayan village chief Alexander Item.

“Since Day 1 of the tragic treasure hunting incident, the Municipal Government of Santo Tomas has deployed all assets – financial, equipment, materials and personnel – from the municipal, provincial and even from regional level using a whole-of-government approach to hasten the conduct of the search, rescue and retrieval operation,” the statement read.

It added that the IMT exhausted all means to speed up the operation to extricate bodies of the four, identified as Gerick Marquez, 23; Dindo Pañares and Rustom Rancho, both 18; and a 17-year-old boy.

“We pursued despite the risks. We pursued despite the life-threatening danger it entails. We pursued because we cannot, in good conscience, allow them to be buried 96 feet under without exhausting all efforts to retrieve them. We pursued because they are our people. We pursued it because we are a government that is for the people,” it added.

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. (Antonio L. Colina IV / MindaNews)