Typhoon Haiyan: Hundreds of unidentified victims buried in mass graves

Two boys help to fill a large grave with body bags in the devastated city of Tacloban, Philippines on Thursday. Aaron Favila / AP

TACLOBAN, Philippines – With the stench of death hanging over this storm-ravaged city, workers on Thursday began collecting the victims of Typhoon Haiyan for burial, in some cases in mass graves.

Most of the collected bodies have yet to be identified.

One the road to the airport, 51 corpses were loaded onto the back of a truck – a tiny handful of the 2,357 people confirmed to have been killed when the storm's 195-mph-winds and wall of water slammed into the country. Aid workers say the true death toll could be much higher.

But with the risk of disease increasing with each passing day, and the smell of putrefying flesh choking the air, the city’s beleaguered officials put public safety ahead of private dignity.

“It is difficult because there is an urgency for sanitation, and to boost morale and avoid more psychological stress,” said Police Superintendent Pierre Carpio.

In the hope of one day matching graves to missing family members, police on the airport road were numbering and photographing bodies - even when corpses were so bloated and disfigured that facial features were no longer discernible.

Typhoon victims fighting for survival 1:38

The bodies were then tagged with a number before being bagged and removed. Among the bodies being photographed was a baby.

Everybody seems to have lost somebody in this city, and a lot of the victims are unidentified because they have lost all their friends and family.

People here are relatively used to seeing bodies: Funeral ceremonies in this predominantly Catholic country are usually preceded by a family gathering around an open casket.

But the sight of victims lying uncollected along roadsides or in the wreckage of homes is adding to a widespread sense of despair.

“There are still so many cadavers in so many areas. It’s scary,” Tacloban Mayor Alfred Romualdez told AFP, adding that retrieval teams in the paralyzed city were struggling to cope.

Baby born in rubble of Tacloban church 1:58

The city government remains paralyzed, with an average of just 70 workers showing up for work, compared to 2,500 normally.

In the city's first mass burial, scores of bodies in leaking black bags were lowered into hillside graves without any prayers being said, The Associated Press reported.

John Cajipe, 31, and three teenage boys who work at the local cemetery placed the first body in the grave's right hand corner. Sweat rolled down their faces in the blistering sun as they carried the body.

The second body followed two minutes later, carefully placed alongside the first. And so on, until scores of bodies — all unidentifed — filled the grave, the AP said. 

Dozens more bodies were lined up in bags outside the City Hall.

Tacloban City Administrator Tecson John Lim told Reuters that a single mass grave for 1,000 victims was being dug Thursday.

It was a process being repeated across the storm-battered Philippines. South of the capital, Manila, locals in the town of Tanauan said one single mass grave contained 200 bodies.

With more than half a million people displaced across the country by the typhoon, according to U.N. estimates, and medical supplies slow to reach remote communities, the grim toll was likely to rise further in the coming days.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report. Alastair Jamieson reported from London.