, January 6, 2005 (STAR) By Felix De Los Santos  -  They collected the bloated bodies of the dead — men, women and children — from the sea to the shore.

This was how former social welfare minister Estefania Aldaba-Lim recalled the aftermath of the tsunami that hit the coastline of Mindanao on Aug. 17, 1976, after a magnitude 7.9 earthquake generated by the Cotabato Trench occurred shortly past midnight.

The cities and provinces of Cotabato took the brunt of the earthquake but the tsunami it generated spelled doom for the provinces bordering the Moro Gulf, notably Pagadian City.

The toll was 4,791 dead, 2,288 missing, and 9,928 injured.

As the disaster struck at an ungodly hour, no one was aware of its magnitude, including Aldaba-Lim, social welfare minister of the Marcos regime who was then visiting her friend Bai Matabay Plang and her children’s orphanage program in Cotabato.

"Very early on the morning of August 17, I heard a radio broadcast calling me to be on duty: ‘Secretary Aldaba-Lim, report immediately to Pagadian City to attend to the tsunami disaster,’" she told The STAR.

Shortly, the military in Zamboanga sent a helicopter to fetch her from Plang’s orphanage and in half an hour, they were at the disaster site where members of the social welfare regional staff had already rushed upon learning of the tsunami.

"My God!" were the first words she uttered upon seeing the massive death and destruction, she recalled.

From the helicopter she saw that the entire town had been swept away and, there at sea, dead bodies floated among the debris of houses tossed about by waves.

"We began pulling and collecting the dead — men, women and children — in the sea to the shoreline. Mothers with babies tightly clasped to their breasts, fathers holding on to the little children... Every single dead man and woman floating in the water was already bloated," Aldaba-Lim told the STAR, her voice almost a whisper as if she were seeing the scene again, transported back to Pagadian 29 years ago.

"Nakakaawa talaga," she said.

She recalled there were no warning systems at the time and all the families of the town were fast asleep when the 10-meter tsunami hit the town.

"For one whole week, we were kept busy preparing the mass burial. The population was predominantly Muslim and, by tradition, we had to wrap each body in white sheets," she said, admitting that she lost count of the number of bodies they had pulled out of the sea and buried in mass graves.

Aldaba-Lim said she might have become immune to all that ugliness but the images of death and destruction in Pagadian that day in August still remain.

More than that, she physically bears the memories of that week of horror.

"I was completely sunburned and that triggered my skin pigmentation," she said, confiding that she continues to undergo treatment up to now.

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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