Sendong 11 years later: no results yet from DNA matching tests

CAGAYAN DE ORO (MindaNews / 17 December) — For eleven years, journalist John Paul Barsopia has been clinging to the hope that his 59-year-old uncle, Ruben, is still alive and living somewhere.

At least 300 unidentified victims of tropical storm Sendong (international name: Washi) have been buried in unmarked graves here and in neighboring Iligan City. Ruben could be among them but John Paul has no way of knowing as results of the DNA matching tests conducted by the National Bureau of Investigation medico-legal teams 11 years ago have yet to be released. 

Journalist John Paul Barsopia points to the name of his uncle Ruben at the Sendong Memorial Wall in Cagayan de Oro City on Friday, December 16, 2022. The 59-year-old Ruben are among those reported missing when tropical storm Sendong inundated the villages beside Cagayan de Oro River on December 16, 2011. MindaNews photo by FROILAN GALLARDO

“We still cling to the hope he is alive and living somewhere but as the years passed, this has become dimmer and dimmer. We have slowly accepted that Uncle Ruben did not survive,” said John Paul, who works in a local radio station here.

Barsopia lost two uncles that fateful night of December 16, 2011 as tropical storm “Sendong” unleashed some 475 mm of rain over a 24-hour period.

The Cagayan de Oro River rose by as much as 30 feet, wiping out settlements in the riverside barangays of Balulang, Carmen and Macasandig.

Figures from the Office of Civil Defense said 674 people died in Cagayan de Oro and another 490 in Iligan City.

A woman lights a candle at the Sendong Memorial Wall in Cagayan de Oro City on Friday, December 16, 2022. The wall contains a list of the dead and the missing due when typhoon Sendong struck this city on December 16, 2011. MindaNews photo by FROILAN GALLARDO

John Paul said they found the body of his other uncle, Ely, 56-year-old, at the foot of Ysalina Bridge the next day.

“I tried to rescue my Uncle Ruben. I swam to his house but the river current was too strong,” he narrated.

Fellow news reporters found John Paul early morning of December 17, 2011 wet, shivering and pleading for help to find his uncle on top of the bridge. 

He recalls that three months later, NBI Disaster Victims Identification team extracted DNA sampling from his grandmother, Mercedes, in the hope of finding a match among the samples from 200 unidentified bodies in Cagayan de Oro and another 124 in Iligan.

The bodies were buried in an unmarked vault in Bolonsiri public cemetery here and a cemetery in Iligan City.

“Up to this day, the NBI has not given us the result. Namatay na lang ako Lola
 (Grandma has passed away), he  said.

Former social welfare chief of Cagayan de Oro City Teddy Sabugaa said the NBI did not release the results of the DNA matching during the nine-year term of former Mayor Oscar Moreno.

Sabugaa said the matching could not be processed due to lack of reagents.

Dr. Tammy Uy, NBI Region 10 medico-legal chief in an interview on December 16, 2014, said the money to complete the DNA tests ran out in 2012.

He said 800 family members came to the NBI office to have their DNA tests taken.

Mayor Rolando Uy said the Sendong tragedy was a wake up call for the city and residents to seriously plan for disasters.

Mayor Rolando Uy (in black and white shirt) lights a candle at the Sendong Memorial Wall in Cagayan de Oro City on Friday, December 16, 2022. Uy said the tragedy was a wake up call to the city to seriously prepare for climate disasters. MindaNews photo by FROILAN GALLARDO

“I remember that the people in Balulang and Carmen did not heed our calls to evacuate hours before the Cagayan de Oro River overflowed from its banks,” Uy said.

“The people simply told our responders that they were used to flooding of the river and there was no need to evacuate,” he added.

Uy said by the time the river overflowed from its banks, it was already too late for the responders to evacuate the residents. (Froilan Gallardo / MindaNews)