Typhooon Yolanda: tales of Survival Part I
Days after super typhoon Yolanda hit the country, stories from the survivors are surfacing, giving us extraordinary accounts of human strength, spirit and hope.
An air force officer’s ordeal at sea
Lieutenant colonel Allan Jose Taguba of the Philippine Air Force’s (PAF) 8th Infantry Division shared this story of survival by his co-officer based in Tacloban City through Facebook:
Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Fermin Carangan was preparing his troops for possible rescue missions in the province when super typhoon Yolanda slammed the region.
The lieutenant colonel and his team, PAF’s Tactical Operations Group 8, sought shelter from the rains in an office, but the storm surge slowly flooded the building. The team punched a hole through the ceiling to keep from getting swept away by the currents. However, the building collapsed under the power of the typhoon. Fermin clung to a piece of wood to save his life, but could only watch as his men were carried by the waves. Among them, the he recalled, were two young graduates.
He said ‘I was going farther and farther out into the sea and all I saw were tips of coconut tees disappearing into the rising water. Suddenly, I saw a child wrapping his arms tightly to a floating coconut tree. By a stroke of luck, the waves led me to the child.
‘The little boy also held to the piece of wood I was holding on to. We floated where our bodies took us.’
However, the lieutenant colonel said he and the boy went through ‘another hell’ when they were pushed out to sea.
‘We were slammed by waves — huge waves from all directions. We were also toyed by whipping winds. We drank a lot of salt seawater. I was getting so tired.’
At this point, Fermin looked at the little boy and thought ‘too young to die.’ The boy, Miguel, was shivering from the cold. The lieutenant colonel recalled that the boy said ‘Kuya, I will sleep now. I’m so tired already.’
He shouted at the boy’s ears: ‘Don’t sleep! Look, we are near land already!’
Soon, they reached the shoreline of Basey in Samar around 1pm, six hours after Fermin was swept away from his team’s office. Talking to co-officer lieutenant colonel Allan, Fermin said ‘Maybe he’s the reason I’m still alive because God wants to me to make sure this child will live.’
While being carried by the current, Fermin also revealed his thoughts were focused on his family in Tacloban and his team. ‘I thought of the two new graduates of [Philippine Military Academy] 2013. These two young guys were just starting and still have a very bright future ahead.’
Allan revealed that Fermin is recovering at a military hospital and Miguel has been turned over to a retired police officer while waiting for his family. Allan added that prayers can help ease those who are suffering: ‘I’m posting to ask just that — your prayers.’
A miracle amid the wreckage
At the heart of the wreckage three days after the typhoon passed over Leyte, a miracle was born. Baby Bea Joy was delivered in a temporary medical centre inside a shattered airport compound on Monday morning.
Baby Bea Joy three days after Yolanda hit Leyte. Photo: Reuters
Emily Sagalis, 21, said she named the baby after her mother, Beatriz, who was swept away by the giant waves of the storm surge caused by the typhoon. Beatriz has not yet been seen.
Emily said she had thought she would die with her baby still inside her. Her husband, Jobert, meanwhile recalled how the first wave crashed against their coastal town of San Jose. He said it carried their wooden home and washed his family outdoors. He believed it was God’s will that he found his wife floating among the debris.
The water carried them for a long time until it subsided. Soon they reached a school building and found shelter there, huddled alongside other soaked and injured survivors. The group lived on bottles of water they found in the wreckage. Jobert said he knew his wife would give birth soon, but no aid came to their town.
He said ‘She began labour at 5:00 am (Monday) so we had to walk several kilometres before a truck driver hitched us a ride.’
By the time the pair reached the medical centre, Emily already broke her water. Captain Victoriano Sambale, a young military doctor, said ‘This is the first time we have delivered a baby here. The baby is fine and we have managed to stop the bleeding of the mother.’
‘She is so beautiful,’ Emily said as she sat on a makeshift plywood bed.
‘She is my miracle.’
The mayor and his family
Even politicians and celebrities were not spared from the wrath of the typhoon. Left with nothing else to wear, Tacloban City mayor Alfred Romualdez had to use a pair of shorts reportedly looted from a local shopping centre. His wife and city councilor Cristina Gonzales-Romualdez meanwhile had to borrow underwear and clothes from friends.
However, having to wear borrowed items were nothing to what the family faced at the height of the storm.
Before the typhoon struck in the morning, the mayor left to inspect a resort the family owned. Cristina, a nanny and her daughters, 10 and 14, meanwhile sought shelter in the guesthouse which was further inland.
Cristina, a former actress, said her family was prepared for strong wind. However, she said she did not expect that the wall of water, the storm surge, would reach their guesthouse.
She tried to shelter the family in the car so that flying debris won’t hit them. But because of the rising water levels, they had to leave for the house. ‘I saw the water gushing in really quick. It was going higher and higher.’
Cristina recalled how she and her two daughters swam through the water. Soon, the water rose so high that they were able to touch the ceiling. They clung onto the beams to keep from getting pushed out to sea. Later on, they climbed up to the ceiling to keep away from the raging waters of the storm surge.
‘It was a strong wind … an angry wind’, she said.
She said her 14-year-old daughter kept shouting ‘Mommy we’re gonna die.’ At that point, she could do nothing but force herself to keep calm, pray and reassure her children that they were not going to die.
‘I was just praying. Praying and praying and praying with my kids.’ She recalled reciting Psalm 91, a prayer for protection and singing worship songs with her children.
She also remembered thinking ‘Is this a dream? Is this a movie?’
After the water subsided, Cristina and her family walked downtown. She soon reunited with her husband, and both have been trying to help shocked residents and bring back order to the city.
Dad for a day
Childless couple Pablo Oronos and his wife were praying in their home the morning of Friday, 8 November when super typhoon Yolanda struck Tacloban City.
Because of the force of the typhoon, their house gave way. They needed to escape the rising waters to their neighbours’ house or else be carried by the storm surge. In the next house, Pablo saw four children who were also trying to escape from the waves.
The 52-year-old musician said ‘There were four of them — two girls and two boys. The water was already rising fast.
‘I was able to save them by raising them up onto the ceiling.’
Pablo cannot remember how fast the water rose, but he said it reached up to 15ft. ‘After I saved the child and placed him on the ceiling, he fell into the waters. I picked him up again but he already swallowed some water.’
But while he was trying to carry the child back to the ceiling, Pablo cut his foot on what his wife believes was a broken piece of coffee table glass.
Thankfully, after the harrowing experience in that home, the couple was able to reunite the children with their parents. He said ‘The parents of the children, we helped each other to finally overcome the disaster.’
As for his wound, Pablo was only able to receive treatment when he reached Tacloban airport because it was the only place with adequate medical supplies. However, the doctors told him his wound may worsen because a vein might have been cut. The couple had to fly via a C-130 plane to Cebu to get Pablo the medical attention he needed.
After getting his wound cleaned and after getting medicine, Pablo and his wife now face a new problem: lack of money. They have been waiting for a free ride in Mactan Airbase to Manila, where they intend to live with relatives for the time being.
‘Our problem is we don’t have money, we arrived [in Cebu] with absolutely no money at all. We’ll just see what happens when we get to Manila.’
When asked what he felt now that his livelihood is gone, Pablo said ‘That’s not a problem as long as we are alive. We don’t have a child, so it’s okay.’
Survivor finds his way home
Fifty-six-year-old real estate agent Peter Borromeo stopped by Tacloban on 7 November to weather the storm. Peter said he had experienced his share of extreme weather; he believed he could manage this one.
‘I thought that Yolanda [the local name of Typhoon Haiyan] was just like the past calamities that I experienced. I realized it was ten times stronger than anything I experienced in the past.’
Two hours after super typhoon Yolanda made landfall in Eastern Samar, Peter sent a text message to Katrina, one of his six children, saying he was fine and that he had a flashlight.
‘I am OK’, his message read ‘When I was a teenager, we experienced this a lot in Tacloban and Calbayog.’
That was the last time his family heard from him.
The Borromeo children, some of whom were already based in the US, panicked when they saw news of the devastation left by the super typhoon. They started posting photos, notices and pleas in their social networks to get news about their dad. They even asked friends based in the country to contact people on the ground. The Cable News Network (CNN) soon picked up the story and asked the family for an interview.
Arizona resident and one of Peter’s daughters Katsy Borromeo-Chiongbian said ‘Within minutes, I was on the phone with Anderson Cooper.’ The publicity helped the family spread news about the missing father. Friends and strangers began contacting the family within hours, but most led to dead ends.
‘We used the Google Person Finder, but a lot of people confused the database for missing people with the list of survivors. You cannot believe the grief the false alarms gave us.’
Peter’s sons also tried looking for their father on foot. But problems in transportation made the search difficult. Little did they know that good news was on the horizon.
Unaware of his families frantic search, Peter tried to find his own way home amidst the rubble. At the height of the typhoon, the hotel’s roof was blown off and Peter was left at the mercy of the storm: ‘I was holding on for dear life with my right arm around a post of my hotel room, and used my left hand to cover my head with a pillow for any flying objects that could hit my head.’
He held onto the post for four hours and recited prayers until the storm passed.
After surveying the damage with other hotel guests, he went to a nearby church to seek shelter. ‘Four of their vehicles were floating in the bay, and there was a dead body hanging at the back of my room.
‘We walked together toward the city and saw more bodies, cars, trucks and pieces of housing materials piled on top of each other.’
Peter described the next four days as the most humbling experience of his life. What he saw made him more religious: ‘People had no shelter, food and water, but you would not hear them complaining about the material things they lost.
‘They always thanked God they survived.’
Living on a can of tuna and a bottle of water for three days, Peter tried to look for transportation and food. Soon, he met familiar faces: ‘Without knowing, I had somehow stopped at the door of the Montejos, our family friends. But there was still no way for us to communicate with our families. I imagined my family would assume I was among the casualties.’
After resting and eating, he walked to the airport hoping to catch a flight home. He slept there for two nights, not knowing that his children’s friends, acquaintances and distant relatives were already keeping an eye out for him thanks to posts online.
Katsy said ‘My friend got reports from other people who spotted my dad in the Tacloban airport.
‘There are so many people to thank. It’s really a miracle, and honestly, I can’t ask for anything more.’