In Tacloban, a grisly race to identify the dead

A man contemplates his future as he surveys the wreck that was once his house in Tacloban City. Behind him, cars and other debris float on the river.  Photo By Rene Dilan

A man contemplates his future as he surveys the wreck that was once his house in Tacloban City. Behind him, cars and other debris float on the river.
Photo By Rene Dilan

TACLOBAN CITY: Clouds of flies rise as forensic pathologist Cecilia Lim opens body bags one by one, in a grim but crucial search for the identities of unknown typhoon victims.

“Some of these remains, their faces are gone. We’re trying to do it as fast as we can before we lose everything,” says Lim, as a truck unloads 80 more dead at her workspace—the edge of a mass grave outside the storm-shattered city of Tacloban.

A putrid stench rises from the giant pit where around 700 unevenly stacked bodies lie six deep, some of them having lain in the tropical heat for a week-and-a-half.

Scores more lie on the side of the road, lined up in bags and awaiting processing by small, overworked teams.

Lim says the aim is to record rudimentary details before they are buried in the hope that at some point, the bodies can be identified and placed in a proper grave.

“We are trying to do some initial victim identification and post mortem gathering of evidence before the bodies really decompose,” she says.

As her assistant lifts the limp, wet clothes of each cadaver, Lim takes notes in neat cursive script in a reporter’s notebook, recording the sex and describing distinguishing marks.

Each hand is lifted to check for rings and the pockets are emptied, their contents inspected, logged and photographed.

Long, matted hair is scraped from one woman’s face, exposing her teeth so Lim can take a picture.

Crouching over the bloated body of one man, her knees just above the remains of his face, Lim unfolds a pair of spectacles taken from his shirt pocket, looking for a brand name on the arm before she refolds and photographs them.

“We document the clothes they are wearing, as well as any jewellery, tattoos or scars; something distinctive that people remember,” she says.

Cesar Pretencio rode his motorbike up from Tacloban in the search for his mother’s body.

“We had identified her and she was left in the chapel, but now she is gone,” he says. “We want to know where she is so we can give her a proper burial.”

Lim nods sympathetically and tells Pretencio she will “keep an eye out” for his mother.

With the disaster known to have left more than 5,500 people dead or missing, the authorities are overwhelmed and Lim is just one of a handful of forensic pathologists who have been called in to help.

Those that are identified can be claimed by family and interred with the usual ceremony. The rest are taken to one of three pits like this.

The corpses are brought by firefighters who drive around the ruined city collecting the dead from among the debris of the storm surge.

“Yesterday we went out on the truck around Tacloban picking up bodies. We got 92,” Gallie Encabo tells Agence France-Presse.

He is part of a group of 15 firemen who have come from Mindanao to help with the recovery after one of the most powerful storms ever recorded.

The teams are being rotated among body collection, mass grave duty and water distribution.

“When the doctors have recorded the marks on the bodies for identification, we will put them in the ground,” he says, gesturing to the pit where a yellow excavator is digging a second trench.

This is the first time they have done body recovery on such a scale, says fellow firefighter
Edgar Reyes.

“There are so many,” he says. “Yesterday when we stopped for one body, people would be shouting: ‘Hey, there’s one over here’.”

Lim, who trained in Detroit and Singapore, says that since she and other professionals started work on Monday, they have been trying to impose order on the burial process.

She admits that dealing with so many corpses is harrowing work.

“You go through all the training for a mass disaster,” she says. “But nothing can prepare you for this.”



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  1. Fernando Habito on

    In time of disasters or huge calamity like Super Typhoon “Yolanda” statistic in terms of number is always conditional and not exact.Most likely there are always disparities from the report of different sources.The figure is always based on rough estimate based on the methods or technique of counting at a given time..If at this moment the search is still going on to identify and count the number of the dead victim it’s not appropriate to make hasty emotional judgement which some ignorant commentators that make it a political issue.

  2. Why the president is insisting on a low casualty number of 2,000 to 2,500 is beyond me. Why stick on a number when bodies are still being dug up from debris. I hope the Filipino people wakes up from the madness of our political system. We should reboot and reset this government. Away with the corrupt, stop the political dynasties, federalized the system, kick out the opportunistic politicians. Vote wisely my countrymen!

  3. The initial estimate by the Aquino Administration was so low that body bags may not have even come into play until the full impact of Yolanda became known. They talk about Zero Casualty when even the most rudimentary estimate of any typhoon’s impact includes a discussion of potential casualties. Who are they kidding?