Typhoon Haiyan: The search for bodies

By Rajini Vaidyanathan
BBC News, Tacloban


Hundreds of bodies are still being retrieved from the rubble of Typhoon Haiyan, every day. For the volunteers who help with this, it is a grim but vital task.

On the seafront at Tacloban city, the gentle lapping of the waves is broken by the whirring of a chainsaw.

A group of men are standing on the roof of a house, which two weeks ago was pummelled by the very same water.

They tug at the corrugated iron, prising it away to enter the living room - but it is death they are looking for.

These young volunteers from the Philippines Red Cross have the gruesome job of recovering a corpse which a neighbour has told them lies inside.

"It's hard to retrieve the dead bodies because there's so much debris," says Don Erickson Orge, who has travelled from Manila to help.

Media caption,
Rajini Vaidyanathan has been with some of the rescue teams in Tacloban

It is a delicate operation, which is distressing to watch. Moments later a body, wrapped in plastic is lifted out. It's hard not to wonder who the victim was, and how they lived their last moments.

"I feel sad to see the dead bodies, but this is our job" says Don. "We must do it for the sake of Tacloban city," he adds stoically. His team, which works for two weeks at a time, will be given counselling and support to help them deal with what they have seen.

It's two weeks since the Typhoon hit and the bodies of thousands of victims have yet to be retrieved. Some are trapped under mangled homes and cars, others have washed up onto the banks of the sea. In some areas, they lie bloated and untouched by the side of the road, next to overturned cars and uprooted tree trunks.

Image caption,
The wrapped bodies await space at the cemetery

"The challenge is when the bodies are already submerged in the water because it's already decomposed, and the smell is not good so that is a hard thing," says Don.

At least 5,000 people died in the Typhoon, according to the latest government figures. Many believe that number will climb far higher as victims continue to be pulled from the wreckage.

As many as 100 bodies are still being recovered each day in Tacloban alone. Don's team is just one of several tasked with this.

Close to what's left of City Hall, I meet around a dozen government workers, collecting corpses which have washed ashore. In the intense and unrelenting heat, the smell of death lingers, stubbornly. It is difficult to stomach, but the men go about their work unflinchingly.

They are guided by a police officer, who tells me one of the victims they've found is a former American soldier, identified by his tattoo. His body is left to one side, so US officials can make further enquiries while the rest of the victims, eight Filipinos, are loaded one by one into a van heading to the morgue, which is already at capacity.

A short drive from the centre of the city are the remains of a cemetery, which has been damaged by the storm. Headstones lie upside down, and crosses have been snapped in half. The sanctity of this final resting place has been violated by the Typhoon, but close by is an even more tragic sight.

Rows of white body bags lie symmetrically along the road, waiting to be buried. It's here I meet Ferdinand, who has come to Tacloban to work with the fire service.

Image caption,
Ferdinand, right, says it's tiring work

"The bodies will be taken to a graveyard soon, but it's full at the moment, so we will have to transfer these to the new one nearby," he explains. In this area alone, three new cemeteries have been built to accommodate the countless victims.

"This job is very much exhausting and tiring, so far," says Ferdinand. "I'm a father, so I find it very difficult when I see the bodies of babies and young children… that really upsets me".

It is difficult to comprehend the human cost of this tragedy, and the brutality of the storm.

While many people are tasked with ensuring aid reaches those who survived, there are others who are helping ensure, there is dignity for the dead.