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Day Eleven – Super Typhoon Yolanda

Submitted by on November 19, 2013 – 2:15 pm
A member of the SOCO team examines a body retrieved 10 days after typhoon Yolanda struck

My experience of the typhoon continues to deepen, as yesterday I had the opportunity to go out with a Bureau of Fire Protection (BFP) team as they retrieved bodies. Members of the BFP are staying at this pension house with me, and it was they that they suggested I go along. I’m not sure that I would have had the nerve to ask to accompany them on my own.

All the BFP personnel gathered at the fire station first. This was their headquarters, and they received a briefing there. As is typical in the Philippines, this briefing was delivered in a mixture of many languages. I don’t mean that it is translated. One person will speak and will effortlessly switch languages from one sentence to another and even from one word to another. Therefore, some of this briefing was given in English, and I could understand it. The speaker talked in fairly general terms about the process of body retrieval, concentrating on health and safety as well as on showing respect for the dead bodies. Once the briefing was completed, individual teams were given further instructions on how to put on and take off their gloves. Many of them wore rubber gloves with surgical gloves on top of them. The cuffs were turned up in such a way that you could safely and quickly remove them by inserting two fingers and pulling. This technique prevented any contamination of the skin under the gloves. This type of instruction was necessary because the teams were constantly being switched out. Teams from all over the country are assembling here, and they work for a set number of days and then return home to be replaced by a team from a different city or region. As such, this was the first day of work for some individuals. Others were old hands and showed the newcomers various tips and tricks.

The BFP team staying at my pension house is a specialized medical team. Their mission is to provide medical care for the other members of the BFP – the ones going out to retrieve bodies. They do treat ordinary people (like me), but that isn’t their primary mission. As such, they remain at headquarters, and I had to find another team to go out with. I felt a little awkward doing that since I have no official reason to be there. I am not a member of the media (unless you consider a blog to be media), just a curious traveller. I was honest with everyone about who I was, but it’s a safe bet that most people assumed I was with the international media. But really I was only there because I had become friendly with the BFP medical team.

I ended up with a team from Mindanao, which is known as Region 10. This particular team was from the city of Cagayan de Oro, and I happened to have visited that city on a recent vacation here. While I stood amongst this team during their preparations, I was joined by a young Western man. His name was Walter, and he was a journalist from Holland. He was based in Tokyo, but had hopped a series of planes and boats to get here in order to cover the typhoon and its aftermath. He asked me about joining the team as it went out retrieving bodies, and I directed him to the leader of the team. He was gladly accepted, and in a short while, we were all piling into and on top of a fire truck.

It took a while for the shape of this expedition to become clear to me. At first, it all seemed rather haphazard. There was no room on the fire truck, obviously, for dead bodies, and I wondered how this would work. I also wondered where we were going to go and what exactly our role was. Were we going to pull bodies out of the water and rubble? Or were we simply going to gather them up from the side of the road where they’d been placed by other teams? Would we be going to the mass grave? What was our schedule? I didn’t have answers to any of these questions, and it didn’t seem that anyone else did either.

I was invited to climb inside the truck and sit on some seats. However, there would be no view from there, and I indicated I’d prefer to just climb up on top along with everyone else. This, as it turned out, was easier said than done, particularly with my bulky knapsack and my ever-present camera around my neck. There were only two very small metal steps available to climb up there. Plus, the surface was metal, and it had all been drenched by fuel. It was extremely slippery, and what with all the fire hoses and bells and lights and other people, a slip and a fall was a serious possibility. Health and safety was a big topic of the briefing, but this is still the Philippines, and you are expected to use some common sense and look after yourself. I doubt, for example, that a similar team in Canada would be allowed to operate in this fashion. A fire truck, after all, is not designed to carry a crowd of workers on top of it. Plus, there were downed power lines and cables and trees all over the place still, and the driver did not slow down for these. We fellows on top had to look out for them ourselves and duck or otherwise move fast to prevent getting swept off. With the extreme “safety, safety, safety” culture of Canada, none of this would have been allowed.

Once settled on the roof, I turned to the BFP guys and asked them my questions about our mission. Not surprisingly, they didn’t know the answers to any of them. They were content to just go along and do what they were told when the time came. Beyond that, they didn’t sweat the details. With my experience in the Philippines to date, this didn’t surprise me at all. But it did drive me crazy. I had no active role on this mission, and yet I felt this powerful need to know where we were going to go, what exactly we were going to do, and when we were going to return. My Western mind wanted details and facts and plans and schedules. My companions were quite happy to simply endure, and I had no choice but to sit back with them and wait.

I found the first part of our day quite frustrating. I wanted to hit the road and get out of Tacloban and get to work. But it appears we had another briefing to attend. This briefing was where the team got its actual assignment. The fire truck drove a short distance away from the fire station and then pulled over. We all climbed down off the truck and marched over to join a large group in the shade. There we got our assignment, and we marched back to the truck and climbed back on. I didn’t know this at the time, but there were four BFP body retrieval teams. They had been code named Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, and Delta. We were team Bravo.

At this point, the expedition started to take shape, and I understood better how it would function. Our fire truck was only one part of a convoy consisting of a van, the firetruck, a dump truck, and a police vehicle. The fire truck served essentially as a personnel carrier and nothing more. There was no reason it had to be a fire truck. It just happened to be the only vehicle available to carry us. The dump truck’s role was to carry the bodies that we retrieved and ultimately bring them to the mass grave site. It was a beast of a truck and could clearly carry quite a large load.

Ahead of us and leading the way was the van – an official police crime lab vehicle. It contained officials from SOCO – Scene of the Crime Organization. It was their job to take down some rudimentary details about the bodies, such as sex and height. They also recorded any details they felt were pertinent, such as the color of clothing. I didn’t fully understand the point of measuring height. The bodies were so twisted and distorted that getting a true measure of height was impossible. It was impossible to pull out their legs and straighten them and therefore get an accurate measurement. In any event, they didn’t even have a full measuring tape. They only had a small piece of one – a short section that had been cut out of a regular metal measuring tape – and they had to apply this twice in order to cover the full length of the body. Combine all these factors, plus the fact that the vast majority of Filipinos fall into a very narrow range of height, and the measurements they took couldn’t possibly be of any use for identification. At best, it could be used to distinguish between an adult and a young child. Perhaps measuring height was part of a manual somewhere intended for use with a smaller number of bodies and those in much better condition. As such, they were just following procedures. And I suppose that some information was better than nothing.

Each body was given an identification number that had been pre-written on a piece of paper. (It must have been laminated in some fashion, but I didn’t take in this detail.) This paper, along with a piece of cardboard giving the date and other details, was placed on the body and a photograph was taken. (This photo could not been very useful for identification either, as it was a full shot of the entire body and was taken with a cheap point-and-shoot camera. They did not take a second picture of a close-up of the face.) Then the paper was placed inside the body bag along with the body and it was sealed. This was done for each body and then the body bag was heaved up into the bed of the dump truck. A group of four young police officers rode on the dump truck, and it was their job to pile the bodies in the truck and, I assume, unload them at the mass grave site.

So far, that makes our convoy a SOCO van in the lead followed by the BFP team on the firetruck. The dump truck was behind us – a fact that we were all very grateful for. The smell that came from the truck was overpowering, and it would have been much worse if it was in front of us. Taking up the rear of the convoy was a police vehicle with armed police officers providing security.

Initially, I was disappointed because the convoy turned to go downtown, and we ended up right back at the area on the coast beside my pension house – an area that I know extremely well. We stopped along the main street when we came to a single body in a body bag. Everybody piled off the firetruck, but there was little for anyone but the SOCO people to do. They took down the details about the body, took a height measurement, took a picture, and then resealed the bag. Two BFP personnel loaded it onto the dump truck and that was that. The rest of the large crew with us simply stood around and watched. We then moved a few feet down the road and everyone piled off the truck again. We went down a narrow alley between two buildings, but then nothing happened. We all just stood around until the order came to go back to the truck. No bodies were recovered there at all. I didn’t even bother to ask anyone what was going on, because I knew I wouldn’t get an answer that made sense to me. There was another Westerner on the firetruck at this point. He was a middle-aged American man wearing a black T-shirt with the words “READ YOUR BIBLE” emblazoned on the back in extra-large white letters. He was clearly quite frustrated at all this standing and waiting around. He had thick gloves on, bubbled over with energy and impatience, and was ready to get to work. He was not shy about giving his opinion and told people around him where he thought we should go and what we should do. He eventually left the truck and went off somewhere else where, I assume, he felt there was more action. Taking his spot on the truck was another journalist – a young fellow from France but also based in Tokyo. By this time, with so many foreign correspondents running around Tacloban, I was beginning to suffer from camera envy. The French journalist had a Nikon D700 and a Fuji EX-1 around his neck. I kept looking at his cameras and itching to get my hands on them. All the journalists had the best and the biggest full-frame Canon and Nikon cameras money can buy – and generally two or three of them. My little Olympus, much as I love it, felt totally outclassed and outgunned in that company.

When we finally left this area, we turned around completely and went back the way we came. We drove past City Hall and then up the main street leaving Tacloban. Then things began to pick up and the true color and nature of the day I was to have became apparent.

We came to an intersection where lay a group of perhaps ten bodies already in body bags. This happened to be the exact same intersection from where I’d gone exploring the coastal area shantytown the day before. And the bodies in these body bags were likely the very ones that I had seen in the water and in the rubble there. I had wondered when in the world these poor people were going to be pulled from the water. Well, their turn had finally come.

There was a definite pattern to all of of this. I noted, for one thing, that the bodies had all been placed in the body bags face down. I have no idea why this would be the case. It seems odd. In any event, this meant that to take their picture, they had to be flipped over. Members of the BFP team opened the body bags one by one. Then the body bag was turned over and the body was rolled out onto the ground. Some of the bodies had been covered in garbage bags or rolled up in blankets. This surprised me, too, because I don’t imagine the official recovery teams would do that. They had the official body bags, after all. There was no point to wrapping the bodies in other layers.

I gave this some thought later, and through some over things I saw, I concluded that body bag were being distributed to people who asked for them and local people had been gathering up the bodies themselves in some cases. I learned later that the “READ YOUR BIBLE” man had gone off on his own to seek out bodies. He came to the BFP headquarters to get body bags and he reported to them the locations where he left the bodies on the road. I asked the BFP staff if they approved of this. It struck me that having individuals off doing this kind of work would interfere more than help, but they felt it was a wonderful thing for this man to be doing.

To me, it seemed that the location where the body was found was extremely important for identification. Just off the top of my head, I’d say that a picture should be taken of the body exactly where it was found, before it is taken out of the water or out of the rubble. Then at least four more pictures should be taken – one of the full body from the back, one of the full body from the front, one of the face, and one of all the contents of the person’s pockets (wallet, cell phone, keys, money, ID, etc) plus jewellery and accessories they might have been wearing. I’d put all these contents in a sealed bag and mark it with the same number that was assigned to the body. (Would it be too much to also take a DNA sample?) This all seemed like common sense to me, but none of this was done.

The system as it was followed – dumping the bodies out of the body bags – also meant that body fluids flowed out onto the ground. By the time ten or twenty bodies had been processed in this fashion, quite a large pool of goo was left behind. Body bags were designed partially to contain this kind of contaminant and prevent it from becoming a health hazard. Removing the bodies from the body bags rather defeated this purpose. More than that, the retrieval team removed the extra coverings – the blankets and garbage bags – and left them at the scene as well. Even though we were on a fire truck, the ground was not hosed down and cleaned. Nor was any kind of chemical disinfectant applied. In essence, this system doubled the number of potentially infected sites – the place where the body had been found and now the place where it had been dumped onto the ground and photographed and measured.

One person told me that corruption was the reason behind this haphazard system. There was a budget for body retrieval and a second budget for body identification. The idea was to collect all the bodies and dump them into a mass grave. If they did this quickly, it would consume less of the provided budget and more could be pocketed by the politicians. Then, later, they could go back and dig up all the bodies and try to identify them. This would be a much more difficult process by this time and would be a huge cash cow for the local government – offering lots of opportunity for cronyism and skimming money off the top.

Even worse than this, an idea was floating around that the local government had deliberately delayed the collecting of bodies until the international media got a good look at them and got their photos. The longer these gruesome bodies remained visible all over Tacloban, the more the story would stay on the front pages of the world’s newspapers and the international aid would continue to flow in – offering all kinds of opportunity for the politicians to line their pockets.

There was even a mini-scandal brewing around the Philippines Department of Health body bags. These turned out to be of very poor construction and weren’t strong enough to hold the bloated and heavy bodies. They tore open as people tried to lift them with the bodies inside. I personally saw photographs of one scene where this happened, and the body inside fell from the truck and splattered all over the ground. My team was using bags supplied by the Red Cross. I saw a second large pile of bags from the WHO. These were high quality bags and quite up to the task.

To get back to the body retrieval process, when the body was rolled out of the body bag, the SOCO team went to work and took their measurements and pictures and wrote down the information they required. Then the body bag was placed back over the body and it and the body was rolled and turned over so that the body ended up back inside the body bag. Then it was zipped up and carried over to the dump truck and swung up to the police officers there, who then added it to the growing pile.

All of these bodies had been floating in the water face down, and I hadn’t seen their faces. Now I got to see what the water and time had done to them, and it was far from a pretty sight. The bodies were still fully in the bloat stage and had monstrous proportions. No part of the body was left unaffected and the result was astonishing and frightening. The bodies had also started to liquefy and were quite messy and slippery to work with. Limbs were floppy and unwieldy with skin coming off in large sheets. Heads had expanded to as much as twice their normal size and presented perfectly flat sides – looking like a square – where they had been lying against the pavement. There was very little about them that seemed human anymore, and I imagined that any type of visual identification was virtually impossible at this stage. Even family members would not be able to recognize them. They would have a better chance to identify clothing, and I heard the SOCO people mentioning the color of this or that item of clothing as an identifying feature. In a number of cases, even the sex of the body was next to impossible to identify. I’m sure an expert could tell, but the bodies were so bloated and so many awful things had happened that even when naked, the bodies were somewhat sexless.

More than the appearance (and texture) of these bodies, it was the smell that hit you hard. I had been given a mask – a fairly good one – but I soon learned that even a good mask was completely useless if you breathed through your nose. Someone had asked me in the morning, and I had said that I had a strong stomach. But when confronted with this large group of exposed dead bodies, I realized that it made little difference. I breathed through my nose twice, and I realized that if I did it one more time, I was going to throw up. It was inevitable. I quickly started to breathe through my mouth, and then I felt fine. The sight of the bodies didn’t bother me at all, other than the profound sympathy I felt for these people. But the smell was another thing altogether. Perhaps you get used to it, but I doubt it. I think you can only breathe through your mouth to get through it at all. My entire day was accompanied by that smell. It was everywhere in the city. In any event, it came with us in a concentrated dose in the back of the dump truck.

After loading up those bodies, we turned inland and followed some roads that I wasn’t familiar with. There were bodies there that needed to be picked up. The roads were clogged with traffic – personal vehicles, public transport, and relief organization vehicles. Gas had become available and the Filipinos hit the roads with a vengeance. It astonished me that traffic jams reappeared so quickly. It also saddened me. Horrific as the typhoon had been, it was very pleasant to walk around in a city 100% free of traffic. That time had come to an end, and the regular horror of jeepneys and tricycles was reasserting itself.

From this area, we fought our way through the traffic snarl to the district around Robinsons Mall. I should not have been, but I was astonished at the scale of the destruction even out there. Then we followed the road leading to Palo and the airport. Everything had been destroyed out there. Out front of one gas station, we came across a group of perhaps thirty bodies. I had come to realize that the BFP and SOCO knew about all these sites in advance. They weren’t just stumbling across them by accident. Reports had come in about the location of bodies and these had been assigned to the Alpha, Bravo, Charlie and Delta teams. When we left from our briefing, we had an actual route to follow and a set number of places at which to pick up bodies. The various teams were in contact with headquarters by radio and the whole thing was well coordinated even if that coordination wasn’t apparent to me at the beginning.

Personally, I was quite pleased when we took the road out to the airport. This was the one area I was most interested to see, and my curiousity did not go unrewarded. I knew that this area had been badly hit, but the reality was something that you couldn’t even imagine. It made the damage that had occurred in my area of Tacloban look like nothing at all. The land had been swept clean of human habitation in places as if a giant scraper had come down and scraped it flat. I have no idea how this type of damage could have occurred. Were the winds that powerful? Had the storm surge been moving at a great enough speed to do this? It just defied common sense.

We ran into some more foreign correspondents out there, and I felt a bit of annoyance with them. I could understand why they get a bad reputation – like vultures feeding on misery. They sprinted from spot to spot with their immense cameras, trying to get ahead of the action. Their haste seemed unseemly and disrespectful. One man, without asking for permission, climbed up on top of the dump truck and stood on the cab so that he could get a better angle of the body bags being hoisted aboard. I’m sure he thought of himself as a daring photojournalist doing everything he could to get the shot. I just saw him as a rude individual climbing up on top of private property without permission. At that time, I happened to be on top of the firetruck, but I was there as an invited guest, and I was standing on solid surfaces where I couldn’t damage anything, not on a the weak cab roof that can be dented and scratched. Another photojournalist climbed up on the firetruck with me. She, too, was just a random journalist who happened to be passing, and she just climbed up on the truck as if she belonged there. She was also quite vocal in trying to assess blame for this disaster. She felt that the government should have evacuated everyone. As it turned out, evacuating the city would have saved thousands of lives. But no one could have predicted the strength of the storm surge. In any event, listening to her made me realize why I could never have been a journalist. To be a good journalist, you have to have the instincts to try to pin the blame all the time. That’s your job. I don’t have those instincts.

After a very long day in an extremely hot sun, we turned back for headquarters. I expected that we would all go to the mass grave first, but only the SOCO people and the dump truck with the 72 bodies on board went there. The firetruck with the BFP team went back to Tacloban and the fire station.

There was no particular fanfare about our arrival. Another day of work retrieving bodies had been completed for these men. They would do it again tomorrow. They were laughing and joking as Filipinos seemed almost always to do. It was time to relax and think about dinner.



Day Ten - Super Typhoon Yolanda
Day Twelve - Super Typhoon Yolanda

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