After the rain, firemen bury corpses

Patricia Evangelista
It has become the task of firemen to bury corpses in mass graves. It is their vocation to serve the people.

PALLBEARERS. Members of the Bureau of Fire Protection carry unidentified cadavers to the city's first mass grave. Photo by Jake Verzosa

TACLOBAN CITY, Philippines – The trench is 10 feet deep, almost a hundred meters across, running the length of the Basper Public Cemetery.

It has taken more than a day to dig the grave. At the far end of the cemetery boundary, the backhoe is still spitting out earth and rock.

There are corpses along the road, and on the lawn just inside the fence. The bodies have been prepared by civilians, who found the cadavers in the streets outside their houses, or in the debris of their own backyards. It is a motley assortment. A grimy white coffin, edged in painted gold. A wooden box, freshly built. A plastic bag, the body inside a jumble of tangled limbs. Most of the cadavers are laid on pieces of crumpled tin and wrapped in printed sheets—checkered purple, rainbow stripes, fat cabbage roses, Mickey Mouse.

A truck drives in, bringing with it the stench of 6-day-old dead. The mayor says it was the only available vehicle, the single truck in the whole of Tacloban City he could find that could ferry the hundreds of cadavers. He has tried to ask the national government for help. He does not know why the help is not here.

The 34 bodies in the truck are in black zippered body bags printed with the logo of the Department of Health. The firemen lift the bags off the truck, and down a metal ladder. One bag spills open, brown fluid spatters down the back of the truck and on the firemen. 

‘Chief’

The man the firemen call chief is from Biliran province.His name is Arnulfo Horares, Senior Fire Officer 2 of the Bureau of Fire Protection (BFP), who came to Tacloban with a team from Region 8.

Arnulfo is proud to be a fireman, has always wanted to be a fireman and has been in the deaprtment for more than two decades. Firefighting, he says, is a noble profession. Men run away from burning buildings, his men run in.  

Today, their job is to carry the dead for the first of Tacloban City’s mass burials. It is a difficult duty, demanding careful handling. The firemen had expected the police and military to assist. Arnulfo has discovered the job has been left to them. He had hoped for proper equipment, but the gloves they are given are latex, and they tear with every cadaver.

Arnulfo and his men have been here three days. Every night Arnulfo and his men return to their base to sleep on cartons spread over the top of a fire truck. They are well-fed – pork, chicken, rice – but it is difficult to eat. The meat reminds them of corpses. He and his men smell of corpses. Their fire truck smells of corpses. The stench claws its way under their skin, sticks to the backs of their throats, clings to shirt and socks and the bottoms of boots.

Today, on the 6th day, they carry the first hundred for burial. The bodies are nameless, faceless, the unidentified victims of a storm called Yolanda.

‘There are many more’

The National Bureau of Investigation says most of the victims appear to have died from drowning. They say there is a long process required for investigation and identification – DNA collection, fingerprinting, forensic photography, a whole range of procedures. There is no time for all of this now, but it is still possible to identify bodies in the future. 

It rains in the afternoon. The burial stops. The cadavers are soaked again. It is not the first time. 

More bodies arrive as the firemen wait. The rain slows to a trickle, and it begins again. Stop and go, the whole afternoon, until more than a hundred bodies line the bottom of a trench in Tacloban City. 

Arnulfo says he is proud of his men, and of the work they do. Their vocation is to serve the people. He and his men may be carrying body bags, but they remain in service of what is inside. – Rappler