This is the fourth of a series of five articles from Michele Penna, reporting on the Philippines typhoon aftermath in Tacloban

ON November 20, close to Tacloban’s airport, the view is ghastly: in an open space in front of the Chapel of Saint Michael Archangel, next to a semi-destroyed building, bags containing over 50 corpses lie on the ground. The victims died 12 days earlier, but given the initial rush to clean up the streets they had to wait for almost two weeks before being taken care of.

SOCO personnel and bodies outside Chapel of Saint Michael Archangel in Tacloban. Pic: Michele Penna.

We have come here after joining a mission directed by the Fire Department in collaboration with Scene Of the Crime Office (SOCO), the forensic unit of the police. Among us are also three French firefighters who were sent to support the government’s efforts. From the frosty Alps to picking up dead bodies in the tropical heat, this is no holiday.

It is up to groups like this to retrieve the victims who died during the typhoon, perhaps the toughest job in Tacloban. It is a necessary task: for moral reasons and because diseases are a real danger in a city where people crowd shelters and live with little clean water. According to Major Rodrigo A Almaden Junior, who heads the local Fire Department, they find about 25 corpses every day. Tecson John S. Lim, the City Administrator, told the media that “everyday about 100 corpses are found, not counting those out on the streets”.

(MORE: Leaving Tacloban: Typhoon survivors search for a new beginning)

At the airport, one of the firefighters points towards a building and indicates that during the typhoon the water reached the roof: there was no escape for those who took refuge inside. The corpses of an old man and a baby, probably grandfather and grandson, are found still hugging each other. “They had nowhere to go, the water caught them,” says the firefighter, his eyes fixed on the shattered façade. A gloomy sky looms over us, and after about one hour it starts raining. Not a problem for the firefighters: as one puts it, “we like water, our problem is fire. Water actually helps us.” Still, they take cover in front of the building’s entrance.

After the shower, the SOCO works frantically to identify the bodies. A difficult operation, after 12 days in the heat. One cadaver is in such an advanced state of decomposition that the flesh is melting down in a pool of greasy yellow fluid. The face has become a shadow of itself: eyes, mouth, nose are all flattened in a brownish mask, and the only detail giving away that the victim might be a woman is a ring with a stone on her left hand. In cases like this one, the SOCO reverts to all available means to gather information, which usually entails using a long knife to search oral cavities and check the teeth.

One by one, all bags are opened and data collected. Prior to moving to the next in line, a small piece of cardboard is placed next in front of the body and a picture is taken. The paper reads “PNP CRIME LAB Retrieval Operation 20 NOVEMBER, 2013”.

We head back when all the work is done and the bags are safely on the truck, but we are stopped once again near a hospital. The team leaps out of the convoy and moves to the back of the building. When, after a while, they emerge, one of the three French firefighters has a long strain of orange, thick liquid on his right arm. Something has gone wrong, as becomes obvious when his fellow national comes out of the hospital yard. He is carrying something in his hand, something which has the appearances of a human foot. The man asks the team leader what to do with the gruesome find. “Put it on the truck,” must be the answer, for in a matter of seconds the dark piece of flesh is tossed onboard.

(MORE: Helping out in Tacloban: NGOs bring hope to typhoon-hit city)

We were warned that such things can happen by Rogelio de Logronio Junior, one of the men in our team: “The places where we work are tough, bodies are often hidden under the debris. If you pull a shoulder, that can break and you leave the rest inside”.

The bodies amassed on our sortie will all go to a mass grave on the outskirts of Tacloban. Rogelio de Logronio Junior, a member of the Fire Department, says that in spite of the respect Filipinos have for religion and traditions, “the corpses are too many for having an individual burial”.

At least in the immediate aftermath of the typhoon, the dead used to receive only a simple benediction before being dispatched to their resting places. On the first day we arrived, we had proof of such practice when a priest in military boots and baseball cap muttered a few words to bless 14 bodies lying on Magsaysay Boulevard. He then left, possibly to do more of the same around another corner. 

A priest blessed the dead on the streets of Tacloban. Pic: Michele Penna.

The first time a proper burial rite is held is on November 24. Among the wind-shattered palm trees, a U-shaped trench has been excavated. A pile of bags has already been dumped on one end of the ditch, but most of the grave is still empty: most bodies lie outside outside – about 500 of them – scattered on the grass. Some under white tents, some in the open.

There are too many bodies to be buried individually, so mass graves are used instead. Pic: Michele Penna.

At 9.30am the sun is already blazing and the stench of rotting flesh fills the air. One of the soldier covers his mouth with a red and white scarf. The only civilians – except for us and a few other journalists – are locals who have come to see what is going on. The relatives are nowhere to be found. Some might have passed away themselves, some might not know that their relatives are resting here. Some might never know.

Back in downtown, corpses still appear here and there, and there is no organization which has the specific competences required to tackle the problem. The task falls first of all of the Fire Department, but the Army and other groups have joined the effort. One of the organizations involved is the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority (MMDA). Their first duty is clearing the streets of debris, but, as unpleasant surprises are often hidden in the areas where they work, they also take care of the bodies they find.

(MORE: Philippines: The plight of the children of Tacloban)

The MMDA is headed by Ramon Santiago, who tells us that as of November 20 they picked up over 800 victims. Mr Santiago is visibly thankful that that part of their job is now over. His subordinates even more: as we speak, two men dressed in what clearly is technical equipment – one, for some reason, looks rather like a professional diver – enter the room where we are sitting and shake hands with everybody before leaving. Mr Santiago says they are the people in charge of the retrieval. “They are going back to Manila, they are really happy,” he says. And rightly so too, their shift on the toughest job in town is finally over.