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TACLOBAN, Philippines — They’re doing a job nobody wants to do in a place few want to be.
But their deeply unenviable task is a vital step toward getting Tacloban, the Philippines city decimated by the fury of Super Typhoon Haiyan, back on its feet.
They are the body collectors — the men who go from one debris-laden street to another, gathering the corpses left by the devastating storm and ferrying them in trucks to the outdoor morgue or mass graves.
Amid the humid heat and the frequent rain, the work is grisly and arduous.
“It’s very hard for us,” says Don Pomposo, a fireman sent to help Tacloban from another region of the country with 15 of his colleagues. “It’s too hard.”
Quantifying the dead
The bodies that remained in the city’s streets for days after the typhoon became a grim symbol of Haiyan’s destructive power and the temporary breakdown in government operations that followed.
Officials are still struggling to quantify the dead. At the very least, hundreds of people were killed in Tacloban. Nationwide, the death toll from the typhoon stands at 3,976, authorities say, with another 1,598 missing.
Over the past few days, progress has been made in central areas of Tacloban in the gathering and clearing of bodies, whose putrid odor has people constantly covering their noses and mouths and worrying about the possible consequences for their health.
Although those fears may be exaggerated, the continued presence of the bodies — lined up on the streets in bags, or still buried in large areas of jumbled wreckage where houses once stood — is a macabre reminder of how far the city still has to go to recover from its horrific ordeal.
Pomposo and his colleague Vincent Albert Garchitorena are among those working hard to help Tacloban move forward. Their team recovered 76 bodies from one street during a single morning this weekend, they say.
Clad in black T-shirts and pants tucked into tall rubber boots, they are stoical as they talk about the stomach-turning sights that confront them.
The main difficulty, they explain, is to keep going for the duration of the roughly 10-hour days they have to endure.
“We just need complete rest after working,” Pomposo says, standing near a pile of stinking debris.
He has a facemask, and Garchitorena a scarf, to block out some of the stench. They both wear baseball caps to shield them from the scorching sun. But there is nothing that can protect their eyes from what they see.
The bodies they’ve collected over the past several days span the age range, from babies to the elderly. On occasion, they’ve come across dead pregnant women.
The corpses they were finding over the weekend have been festering for more than a week in the baking heat. In certain cases, decomposition is advancing rapidly.
Some of the bodies have lost their eyes, they say. Others are riddled with maggots.
The mental toll
The WHO warns that “anyone in charge of a body recovery team should be aware of the stress and trauma that team members might feel, and provide support for this where possible.”