The volunteers who provided dignity for the dead following Typhoon Haiyan

Published: 5 February 2014 15:43 CET

By Nichola Jones, IFRC

The snap of latex gloves in the back of the truck is the only sound as a group of Philippine Red Cross volunteers tasked with one of the most difficult jobs in the typhoon aftermath head out to work.

They are the body retrieval team and they have just had call out.

The team of four have been undertaking this grim task since the day after the disaster. They have collected dozens of victims and although they admit it is a grisly and often traumatic job, they recognise they’re helping those survivors who are desperate to determine the fate of their loved ones. On this particular day, the team had been called to collect two bodies in the San Fernando area of the city.

As the Red Cross truck pulled up on the roadside close to where the remains were believed to be, Annalou Atterberry approached. The 27-year-old teaching assistant said she had come to Tacloban from Manila to bring basic supplies for her family in Leyte and Samar. When she arrived, she was told her 15-year-old nephew Romuel Capilos was missing.

Romuel had quit school in order to earn extra cash for his family and two days before Haiyan hit, he took up a gruelling job in a fish processing factory in Tacloban. He was working up to 21 hours a day for 1,500 pesos a month – the equivalent of about $35 US dollars.

He and between 15 and 20 of his colleagues had worked on the day of the typhoon instead of evacuating.

Annalou hitched a ride from Bongdo Julita village in Leyte, where most of her family live, and came to find Romuel. And that morning she did find him – she found his body wedged under a wall. She’d crawled over the rubble of his workplace until she caught sight of the green t-shirt and shorts she knew he had been wearing on the day of the storm.

She explained Romuel’s mother had been having a recurring dream that her son was trapped underneath something. “That’s why I came,” Annalou said. “Because she kept having the dream that he was saying ‘mum, please help me, please get me out.’ Hopefully, now we can.”

The retrieval team went to assess the scene and deemed it too dangerous. They enlisted the help of the police and their heavy-lifting equipment before heading off to continue collecting the two bodies from the initial call out. The team found them next to each other – they were the bodies of an adult woman and a baby girl, about one year old. The skilful volunteers were able to retrieve the pair and prepare them for burial with dignity, as a crowd of neighbours look on.

Francis Hidalgo, 36, has been a central member of the retrieval team since the operation began. As a father, he admits the job can be harrowing and led to nights when sleep evades him but he said: “It makes me think of my family and how I want to be with them and keep them close. But helping people gives me and all the guys energy. This is one part of being a Red Cross volunteer and I feel it is very important.”