My best friend Nika and I are surf addicts. Our obsession began two years ago, after a spontaneous trip to Baler, Aurora. Since that day, we were absolutely hooked.
For two years, we never tried surfing anywhere else other than Baler. But if we wanted to get better at it, we had to go out of our comfort zone and push ourselves. This motivated us to seek new surf spots… that eventually led us to Borongan via Tacloban.
November 4, 2013, Monday.
Nika and I boarded the plane expecting a trip of lifetime. Our work gave us the privilege to marry our work with our surfing obsession. We had no worries, no hesitation. I felt like we deserve this break… a chance to recuperate from the endless all-nighters and coffee comma. Imaging the sound of the waves gave me a calm that will never be matched by anything.
We landed at the Tacloban Airport with high hopes and silly smiles plastered on our faces. Ate Charlotte, our friend in the city, met us with the same excitement. We told her about the first time we were in Tacloban and how we ended up in Biliran with no money back in 2011. We were innocently laughing about our antics while making plans to meet up again on Friday, so she can show us around the city.
Ate Charlotte dropped us off the van terminal that would take us to our primary destination: Borongan, Eastern Samar. It was a surfing haven. Beautiful waves and perfect weather welcomed us in Borongan. The beach stretch was quiet, untouched by the modern world. In a distance, there was an island that you can just walk to during low tide. They had a lagoon, and more than a dozen surf spots like Pasikat and 16-point. We couldn’t wait to explore them all.
In Borongan, we stayed with our friends – Nick Anacta and his family, at Last Resort, Barangay Galawigan. Nick, his wife Joan, and their kids Zack and Daemien were like family to us. Laughter echoed when Zack would chase after the chocolates I gave him. He shrilled and bounced around when we played him Pitch Perfect on the laptop.
Kuya Dudo, the resort’s caretaker, cooked us some of the best food we’ve ever had with his special “wipe out” hot sauce. Kuya Dudo is a true outdoor man. He didn’t care about money, brands or other material things. He will not trade the freedom to sleep under the stars and by the sea, with any of the comforts of a normal life. Kuya Dudo even refused to move back to Tacloban upon the request of his children, unless they put in a wave pool in his room.
Mac Mac, a town local, showed us some of the best spots to surf. He was training to become a pro-rider until he fell in love at a young age. His daughter then became the center of his universe. And though he had to settle for manual labor and odd jobs to support his daughter, Mac Mac never lost his love for surfing.
These people were our Borongan family.
At night, while we were tapping away at our laptops, they would gather around us. Finding their own little nook on the foamless couch or on the floor, they shared with us the history of surfing in Eastern Samar… how it connected to mountaineering and how surfing is a frame of mind. The conversations were lively, with occasional moments of seriousness. We would imagine and debate about the potential development of Borongan as a surfing destination.
But at the end of every discussion and conversation, there is only one constant conclusion – “Simple life. Happy Life.”
For four days, we juggled work and play – surfing early in the morning and working for the rest of the day and through the night. I was literally glued to my laptop for most of the week… but I was happy.
November 7, 2013, Thursday.
Work free day! By 4am, I was finally able to email everything that we needed to submit. I was ecstatic! I closed my laptop and tucked it far from sight, relieved that I wouldn’t have to face it for at least two days. My heart was beating fast… I couldn’t wait for the sun to rise so we can hit the line up.
“Finally, I can start having a real vacation” I said to myself. We declared a two-hour nonstop dance party while waiting for our surf friends.
We knew about the super typhoon. Some of our family and friends already urged us to return to Manila before the landfall. Rida even said, “Signal no. 4 yan, minsan lang tayo magkaron ng signal no. 4. Wag na kayo dyan.” The warnings seemed exaggerated and over sensationalized. We just kept on dancing inside the little hut in front of the resort. I felt carefree… like child without a care in the world.
Tunes from the 80s and the 90s played in the background as Kuya Dudo and Mac Mac were busy boarding up Nick’s house. As residents of Borongan, they are used to typhoons. They already know where to go, what to do and what to anticipate. But as more warnings were posted online, I saw a hint of fear in Nick and Kuya Dudo. They hurried packing, sealing and carrying things inside. They were like soldiers on a mission while we were like clueless tourists just bouncing around their backyard.
By 10:30am, we ran to sea for one last surf session before leaving for Tacloban. The waves were huge and the drops were exhilarating. It was the first time I caught waves by myself. I felt free. The waves were getting bigger by the minute, but no wipe out can keep us from going back to the line up for another ride.
Rain started to pour again. We felt the undercurrent getting stronger. The waves were dragging us further and further away from the safe zone. It quickly became dangerous… even for Mac Mac. It was time to say goodbye to the waves.
After sharing one last feast with Kuya Dudo and Mac Mac, we waited by the street for the van that would take us back to the city. The wind was blowing softly and the sky was dim. I quietly cherished the memories we made in this little piece of paradise. Nick assured us that they would safe in a nearby by motel, while Kuya Dudo was preparing to stay with the house. We said our goodbyes, promising to return as soon as possible so they can show us more of Borongan.
We left Nick and his family with heavy hearts. The truth is we wanted to stay with them and just roll the dice on what tomorrow would bring. But Nick and Kuya Dudo insisted that we leave. If we stayed, we would only be a liability to them especially if they needed to evacuate elsewhere or if things get really bad. Kuya Dudo even joked, “tawagan nyo kami pagkatapos ng bagyo… kamustahin nyo kami ha. Pag di kami sumagot ok lang… basta ok sila Nick at mga bata.” He said those words like a final farewell, but we brushed it off… confident that no harm would come to them.
Going back to the city a day before our original plan left us with no accommodation. We simultaneously called up all the hotels we found on the net, looking for a vacant room. Surprisingly, all the hotels we called were fully booked – from the big hotels to the pension houses. We had nowhere to go.
Ate Charlotte recommended that we stay at her friend’s place. She described it as dorm type room with no beddings. We were suppose to fly out the following day, so any type of accommodation would usually be fine with us. It was just for one night anyway. But since we were on vacation, I didn’t want to skimp. In our final attempt to secure a good room, I called Bobby, a former client who owned several businesses in the city and asked for a favor. In a matter of minutes, Bobby called me back and said that he found us a room at Asia Stars Hotel. He knew the owner and booked us a room under his name. Having the comforts of a nice hotel room with a proper working bathroom brought me relief. I had no inkling that being in this hotel would literally save our lives.
We got to the city just in time for dinner. After checking in, we left our things in our room (Rm. 509) at the annex building. The room was at the very end of the second floor hallway, beside the fire exit. Walking to the room, you’ll see religious icons and images hanging all over the walls. The beddings were comfortable. We had a television and a hot shower. It was a comfortable end to an epic week… or so I thought.
Before locking ourselves in the hotel room, we headed to Ocho Grill that was just a few blocks away from the hotel. It was the most popular restaurant in the city. Fresh fish were lined up on the counter. We picked several dishes even if we knew that we can’t possibly finish everything we ordered. I even ordered a bottle of white wine. It was a feast. We felt even more special sharing the restaurant with Mar Roxas, the city Mayor and the media who were all in Tacloban in anticipation of the incoming super typhoon.
After dinner, we made one last stop at a convenience store to buy some chips and dips for a movie marathon later that night. By the time we got back to the hotel, I got an alert from PAL advising that my flight was rescheduled from Friday to Saturday. I asked Nika to check with Cebu Pacific and find out if her flight was also rescheduled. The building beside our room window was blocking the signal for mobile data, forcing us to go out to the annex lobby to get online.
A man was sitting on by the stairs. I recognized him from earlier that day when I made a phone call to mother telling her about the hotel we were in and the status of my flight. JP was a local of Tacloban. He and his family checked in to the hotel due to the flood risk in their area. JP and his friends were also supposed to fly out to Manila on Friday for vacation. But because of the typhoon, they had to cancel their flights.
Even JP didn’t have a clue about the extent of the approaching super typhoon. At the most, we expected to be trapped in our room for about a day and just wait it out. Everybody dismissed the repeated mentions of a possible “storm surge”. No one understood what it meant anyway… so people just went about their normal days.
Not minding an extra day in Tacloban, we went to bed worry-free while American Mary played on the laptop. I had no idea that this was the last peaceful sleep we would have in days… everything was about to change. Hell was just around the corner.
November 8, 2013, Friday.
The day our vacation became a nightmare, and our escape from reality became a fight to live.
Rain poured heavily on the roof of the annex building. It sounded like huge rocks were being thrown on the roof. Nika and I jumped to our feet and checked the window. We couldn’t see a thing because our room was adjacent to another building. The space for the exhaust between our room and the next building gave us a small preview of the wind gushing on top of us. It was coming down hard on but I still didn’t feel the urgency of the situation until the ceiling creaked… louder and louder. I packed my things and hid it inside the closet in case the ceiling falls in.
We managed to get down to the first floor to see what’s going on by the main street that was at end of the driveway. I could hardly see the establishments across the street. It like a white fog swallowed the city. The wind passed the building like a solid matter. I felt the anger coming from Mother Nature… and her hand was just about to smack us.
The wind blew harder as the seconds went by. We rushed back to our room and pack the rest of our things. I kept my important things in a small handy bag, prepared to leave everything else in case we needed to run.
Then a bang! The wind blew in the air-conditioning of our room. I got confused. “How did that happen?” I told Nika. I felt a paralyzing fear crawling up my skin.
JP and a bunch of other people were talking on the hallway. There was a panic in their tone. I went out of the room and asked them what the commotion was about. JP and his father, Tito Hector, insisted that we all transfer to the main building because the water was rising fast and the annex was only two floors high.
Panic finally set in. We grabbed our things and rushed to the stairs with the rest of the guests who were staying at the annex. Then everyone made an abrupt stop. The water was already 5ft high. It was impossible for us to cross to the main building without the risk of drowning. The ceiling at the annex lobby also fell in, creating a waterfall. Water was coming at us on all directions. We were trapped.
I followed JP and Tito Hector as they tried to look for another way out. I looked out the window of the stock room opposite our room. The storm surge had already swallowed the cars in the parking lot and the water was still rising.
Tito Hector said we couldn’t use the fire escape because it went down not up. Nika then pointed out to the window of our room. It was only about 2 meters to the next building; there was roofing at the bottom and an exhaust. Crossing it was our only choice to get to higher ground.
The wind was roaring with a deafening wrath. It tipped JP as he tried to climb the exhaust. With a small stool, he bashed in the window of the adjacent building. We didn’t even realize that it was actually the main building of the hotel.
Glass shattered. I saw blood on the windowpane. JP jumped into the room and smashed the rest of the glass around the window frame. Then he dangled a mattress on the ledge to protect us from the glass shards.
The rest of the hotel guests in the annex building scurried inside our room. Within seconds, there were about 35 to 40 people inside the room waiting for their turn to be ushered to the next building. There were elderly people, children and babies. Panic and desperation filled the room. People were yelling and crying out for help as the water seeped in.
I was paralyzed. I stood on top of the bed, and looked at the strangers beside me. The kids were wailing and calling out for their mothers. But it was all white noise to me. In that instant, I felt surrender. I said to myself, “if I die to today I’m ok with it.” There was nothing that I wanted to do that I didn’t do… I had my accomplishments and I already fulfilled all my promises. “If I don’t make it out of this room, I would die content” I thought to myself. An unusual calm took over my entire body. I was in a dream state while I waited for death to take me.
Then I heard a scream that jolted me back to reality. A little boy was hysterical. He was screaming as loud as he could. He refused to climb out the window… he was scared. Nika tried to calm him down. Then he jump to Nika’s arms and I heard her back crack. Not minding the pain, she nudged me hard. “Ikaw na, ikaw na” she shouted.
I always had a fear of heights but I didn’t feel anything as I climbed out that window. Tito Hector was standing at the bottom of the window, as he helped people to coming out of our room. Then another man stood by the exhaust, pulling people up to get to safety.
How I got to the exhaust was a blur until I saw JP’s hand reach out from the window. Within seconds, I was safe.
The scene inside the new room was of determination. These men tirelessly helped everyone cross to safety. Even our bags were there. Nothing got left behind.
It was dark inside the room, but a hotel staff stayed with us and guided the annex guests out onto the common area. I was still in autopilot as I grabbed my things and waited for Nika. Seeing her climb out the window almost brought me to tears.
Nika was a soldier, intent on getting us to safety. She yelled for us to go higher, “Akyat na. Umakyat ka hanggang may hagdan.” It was just her voice that guided me through the pitch-black hallways as we made our way up the stairs to the 4th floor. There were still two floors on top of us but there was no way up. She checked the fire exit but water was also seeping in from under the door.
The following events were unclear to me. It was like was like being in a horrible nightmare… or a scene in a movie. By the time I came to it, I was already inside a room (Rm. 403). There I saw the little boy who wailed in Nika’s arms earlier.
Nika later told me that she saw the kids while looking for a room we can stay in. She was just asking if the kids were alright, when Ate Jed, the kid’s aunt offered for us to stay with them.
The little boy’s name was Chiz. He was there with his sister Jess, Ate Jed, his uncle Erik and cousin Jek Jek. They were locals too. They checked in to the hotel about the same time we did the day before, in case of a flood. So they packed all their stuff into their car, which was now submerged in the hotel’s parking lot.
From 8am to 10am, we just sat quietly inside that little room. They occasionally checked the window overlooking Zamora St. to see if the water was still rising. The wind kept on roaring… like monsters in a Stephen King movie.
It was the longest 2 hours of my life. Minutes felt like days… We just hoped to God that water would stop rising.
Nika sat close to the kids and talk to them to calm them down. Kuya Erik went out to check the situation downstairs, while Ate Jed talked to her cousin who was currently working for the hotel. I was still in shock. Staring at the wall, I couldn’t believe that we still alive. I imagined my father yelling at me telling me “Ang tigas kasi ng ulo mo. Sinabi ko ng umuwi ka na.” I pictured my mother worried sick and crying, while Dino, my boyfriend, was shaking his head in disapproval.
After a while, Kuya Erik came back to room and assured us that the water won’t rise higher than the second floor and that it would go down as soon as Yolanda passes. Before 12 noon the flood completely subsided.
Though my knees still felt weak, I can’t sit still any longer. I decided to go down and talk to the people I saw on the streets. We needed to know what to expect next and what needs to be done.
The halls and stairways were pitch-black. The floor was covered in thick black mud. People were scattered everywhere. Some were walking aimlessly around the halls. Others were sobbing.
I held on to the rails as I made my way down to the ground floor. Water was still ankle deep in the hotel lobby. I saw Tito Hector and other locals standing in front of the hotel as I slowly made my way through the water and the mud. I quietly stood behind them and listened in on their conversations. After a while I can’t help but tap Tito Hector on the shoulder and thank him for saving us earlier.
As I stood there, they tried hash a plan on how to get the generator working and get some food and water supply for the guests. Then all of a sudden, people’s voices started getting louder. I heard some ruckus from a distance, so I took a step back. They found two dead bodies down the street. The people who found them placed them in a makeshift wheelbarrow to push them to the other end of the street. They passed right in front of me, when I heard one of the bystanders say “bata pa… baka nalunod”. I turned around, but I still saw the reflection of the bodies on the glass panes of the hotel lobby. Their faces were covered, but their arms and legs looked pale and yellow.
My heart sank. My spirit was broken. And as I struggled to go back up, I passed by a statue of Sto. Nino. It was untouched by the storm surge. I stood in front of the Sto. Nino, placed my hand on his feet and prayed. I thanked him for saving us and prayed for the souls of those who passed. I fought off crying. “Tears will get us nowhere” I tried to convince myself.
The walk back up was somber. I didn’t mind the darkness or that my knees were jello. When I got back to the room, I just fell to the ground by the foot of the bed, and tucked my head inside my shirt. I felt Nika’s hand on the shoulder… in that moment, a dam of emotions just broke open. I sobbed, hugging my knees as tight as I can while Nika held me. I told her “I saw dead bodies… they were younger than us… that could have been us…” It was the first time I cried that day. I’m not the type who cries at a drop of hat. The last time I cried was because of an overwhelming disappointment. But this time, I lost all control. I felt sadness, relief and defeat all at once. My walls were shattered.
But Nika held on to me tightly. I slowly regained strength and faith. “Kaya natin to” I whispered.
As the tears dried up, so did my fears. We spent the rest of the day watching the streets from our window. At first, people were just walking the streets aimlessly… dazed. Then a couple of them started going into the stores that were left open by the storm surge. Within minutes, more and more people began taking things from the stores… cellphones, food, furniture… anything and everything.
Thinking that Yolanda has completely passed, we decided to walk the streets and look for military personnel… ask for help and maybe get a ride out of Tacloban. The scene on the streets was gut wrenching. The pension houses and the smaller hotels that we called up the day before were all in ruins. This was the first time I realized how lucky we were. If these hotels weren’t fully booked, we wouldn’t have called in favors to get a good hotel. If stayed in that dorm room, I’m certain that we would have met our demise.
Then by some coincidence, I saw Bobby walking towards our direction. I came up to him, relieved to see him well and unharmed. I thanked him for getting us a room at Asia Stars and that being there saved our lives. But I also told him that I saw his store in front of the hotel, and that there was nothing left. Bobby didn’t flinch as he said, “I expected as much.” He already made his rounds. Their stores and warehouse were all basically depleted. It was great to see a familiar face, but I couldn’t muster up a smile.
I walked the downtown streets with my head down, shoulders heavy and my back hunched. My proud walk and confident posture, was gone. I dragged my feet as I took in the scenes of chaos and desperate faces of the people we passed by. Power lines were knocked down. Cars were on top of each other. Glass shards, steel roof, trash and mud cluttered the streets. The entire downtown was a warzone.
By dawn, the fear of death dissipated… taken over by the need to stay alive. Security was a looming concern as looting became for aggressive and rampant. Food and potable drinking water were running out. And the fact that there was no police or military visibility in the area amplified the fear that things can get out of control fast.
When we got back to our room, Ate Jed said that Kuya Erik left to look for the rest of their family who refused to leave their homes the day before. But though her eyes filled with worry about Kuya Erik and not knowing whether their loved ones survived, Ate Jed kept her smile for the children’s sake. She refused to think about the bad news that may come any second… she stood firmly by her faith that everyone is safe.
Our food and water supplies were also dwindling fast. We were worried about the kids having enough to eat in case we stay trapped in the hotel for a couple of more days. Help and rescue was nowhere in sight.
In the lobby, a couple of elderly ladies passed us by with several grocery boxes and liters of bottled water. They found a grocery store a couple of blocks away that was still open for business. We immediately volunteered to go out and get more supplies for Ate Jed. It was already dark out, but it was no time to back down. “We already survived Yolanda, this is nothing,” we said to ourselves.
Before we left for Hayward, we told the people at the hotel lobby that we were going out to get supplies. They told us to hurry back before they lock down the hotel for security.
The night breeze was chilly. The wind rattled the buildings it left in ruins just hours ago. With only a small flashlight lighting our path, we traversed a maze of power lines, glass and debris. Careful not to injure ourselves, we walked slowly but with purpose. The darkness heightened the rest of our senses. I can hear the whispers of people gathering at the corner of the street and the sound of glass moving at our feet. I have never been more alert looking out for flying debris and power lines.
After getting lost a couple of time, we finally made it to Hayward. There was already a long line of people trying to stock up on supplies. We lined up in front of the store as the owner called in 5 people at a time. The people there were orderly and very cooperative. Prices were jacked up but I wasn’t one to complain. The store employees were all very helpful and polite. We were lucky.
We hurried back to the hotel, a bit worried that the box of groceries we carried would attract negative attention. But we saw no threat. We even pointed several other people to Hayward.
Nika knocked at the door of our room, with one hand holding the box of supplies and a smile on her face. When it opened, the number of people in our room pleasantly surprised us. We even thought it was the wrong room. Apparently, Kuya Erik just returned and brought with him the rest of their family. Everyone was safe, just like Ate Jed hoped. No one had any major injuries. Even Chiz and Jess’ mom was there. She only had minor cuts on her legs from trying to swim to safety. Good thing we had our first aid kits with us. We did what we could to clean and sanitize her wounds. The smell of alcohol and betadine brought us a sense of victory. There was a general feeling of relief and happiness in the room. God is good.
Seeing Ate Jed and her family together, made us think of our own families. We knew that they were worried sick about us. Not knowing whether we survived or not, was probably torture for them. But we couldn’t do anything about it. There was no electricity, no cell service. As much as we wanted to let them know that we were okay and unharmed, we had no way to get the word out. It was a helpless situation.
Before going to bed, Jed’s family led the rosary. In that little room, 20 people joined hands in a heartfelt prayer of thanksgiving and deliverance. They recited their part in Waray and we answered in English. But regardless of the language barrier, we prayed in unison… the thought of family and gratitude for the second life given to us was the only language you can hear.
After the rosary, Nika sat quietly on the bed. I saw her break down for the first time. She was picturing being with her own family. She thought of her baby sister who was probably sick with worry. “Si Jana… kailangan ako ni Jana” she muttered. It was my turn to give strength and comfort. I took her hand and grasped them tightly. I told her we’ll be home soon. “Makakauwi tayo… kahit maglakad tayo bukas. Maghahanap tayo ng militar o ng media. Hahanapin natin sila… whatever happens uuwi tayo… makakauwi tayo” I promised Nika.
Finding the military or the media, seemed to be the best chance of getting out of Tacloban. We tried to recall the names of the people we knew in the military and the media. I had faith that if we them, they’ll help us. But more than escape, we just wanted our loved ones to know that we were alive and well.
Through the night, we heard people prying open the rest of the establishments down stairs. At first, they tried to mask their attempts of forcing open the accordions by synchronizing the noise with the roaring of the wind. “To each his own” I said to myself.
Despite the worry, the feeling of hope in our hearts was stronger. Nika and I fell asleep holding each other tightly… finding some solace in each other and in our plan to escape the hell that is unfolding before us.
November 9, 2013, Saturday.
The sun was finally out. It was warm outside. It was 6:30in the morning and I was eager to go down stairs to do more eavesdropping and get more information about the whole situation. I realized that under desperate circumstances, information is key. Without the luxury of the Internet, cellphones, television, other sources of information or communication tools, gathering intelligence the old fashion way is crucial to survival. I tried to talk to as many locals as possible. Fortunately, Tito Hector was working for a local AM radio station and other media personnel were actually staying at the hotel. The front stoop of the hotel was an information goldmine.
After we explored the rest of downtown to assess the situation, Tito Hector told us that a chopper was picking up Ted Failon in Leyte Park Hotel. They were going to bring him to Cebu for his broadcast. We also saw several choppers flying around the city who were probably bringing military personnel. But to everyone’s dismay, no military or police presence was in sight.
Downtown became ground zero for looting. All the malls, grocery stores, restaurants and even banks were forcibly opened. People were not just after food or clothes. Some were carrying boxes of mono block tables, bed frames, foams, water dispensers, washing machines, and even a treadmill. They were no longer carrying plastic bags. People were dragging crates and using shopping carts for their loot. We said that at some point, we would probably do the same if help don’t come soon. At one point, people were running away from the Gaisano mall across the hotel… the second floor was about to give out because of the amount of people trying to get as much loot as they possibly can.
We had to get out and we had to get out now! The risk of violence was getting more apparent as the hours passed. If there is nothing more to loot, people can start attacking each other. It’s the survival instinct.
We now had to make a decision… go to where the choppers are landing or head to Leyte Park Hotel. We chose the latter. We just took our camera and a small bottle of water and started our hike to Leyte Park. We were hoping to get a hold of Ted Failon before he leaves for Cebu and send a message through him to our families.
But before we left, we got some great news. The hotel owner, Kenneth, together with Tito Hector and the other locals, were doing making progress in their attempt to get the generator going. If they’re successful, the hotel guests at Asia Stars can stock up on tap water and have electricity for at least 2-3 hours. They also made a makeshift kitchen to cook on for the hotel guests, especially the children.
With a newfound optimism and lady luck smiling our way, we started our journey to Leyte Park Hotel. It was just 3km away from downtown. But the walk seemed endless as we saw more devastation. More looting, more debris, more cars turned over, more ruins, and more people desperate for help.
On the bright side, we also saw people bartering clothes for food on the streets. The fear of violence became artificial. People were still helping each other. The Filipino resourcefulness was alive and well.
By the time we got to Leyte Park Hotel, people were gathered at the driveway. There were media people, motorcycle riders, foreigners, tourists, and locals. They were all busy in their own little groups, trying to figure out what to do next.
I eagerly look around, trying to find a familiar face when we heard that GMA7 was in the hotel. We searched for them at the lobby but we couldn’t find them. Finally, we
made our way to the dining hall where I saw Ate Love Anover and Ate Suzeth sitting by the a table that was overlooking the calm sea that swept away the city the day before. “Si Love Anover” I whispered to Nika. I took my chance and approached Ate Love. I asked if she can possibly send a message to Rida Reyes, who was also a reporter of GMA7 and a dear friend of ours. Rida was covering the super typhoon from Masbate, but if she knew that we were alive she can instantly tell our loved ones. That was everything to us.
Ate Love, with great sadness said she can’t reach Rida. They didn’t have any of the equipment they need to send out a broadcast much less send a message. Their equipment was still in Palo with Jiggy Manicad, which was about an hour away from the city by car. The last time they were able to air was yesterday morning. They were the only ones there… the rest of their team was still in Palo. They were also trapped.
As our hopes dimmed, we just sat down together and exchanged stories about the day that was… the horrors and the fears that literally broke us, and the events left our hearts wounded. We all faced death in the cloak of a super typhoon.
But more than the trauma and tears we shed, we also shared the miracles that kept us alive. They had a guardian angel that protected them as 10 of them they stood at a corner inside a church that was literally peeled off piece by piece, as Yolanda ploughed through Palo. Eventually, the church collapsed right in front of their eyes… but by some miracle, all of them were unharmed.
We had a guardian angel of our own. The series of luck that we had – from the hotel to the room to the people we met along the way. They all helped us and took us in without hesitation.
Later on we found out that a friend of ours passed away last Thursday. Sir Paul Yan was guru of photography. We met him in Baler, during one of our surf trips. He always took an interest in our adventures and misadventures. Sir Paul was one of those people who knew everybody and is always willing to pull favors for his friends. He was our guardian angel.
All of us at that table only had one thing in mind… to go home and be with our families and loved ones. Nothing and no one can stop us.
Then even without asking, Ate Suzeth suggested that we stay with them that night due to the escalating security threat downtown. A man, who was a former TV director, then approached Ate Love and pleaded, “Help us send a message to the national government. Please help us. They need to send two battalions and declare martial law. If they don’t come, people will start attacking private residences. Please help us.” Hearing the words “martial law” brought a shock through my entire body. We have to escape before martial law is declared, or else we would be trapped there for God knows how long. The thought was dreadful.
We took up Ate Suzeth on her offer, and made our way back to Asia Stars to get our things. It was hard to say goodbye to Ate Jed and the kids. They were already family. We felt guilty about leaving them behind but we desperately wanted to get out and go home.
We warned them about talks of martial law and the impending security threat… that they should barricade the doors when they sleep in case people do attack private residences and hotels in search of food and water. We hugged the kids tightly and said our goodbyes… it was sad but necessary.
Navigating the streets with bags on our backs and some additional supply was exhausting, but we didn’t feel any risk. We blended perfectly with the people on the streets who were busy looting the last of the establishments. Our shoulders were hurting and the weight of our bags slowed us down tremendously. My feet were covered in mud but more determined than ever.
Ate Love and Ate Suzeth shared their room with us. We didn’t know them personally but they still welcomed us with open arms. We felt secured. After settling in, both of them went downtown to check if Hayward was still open and look for a deep well in UP Tacloban to get clean water.
It was the middle of the afternoon and everybody was busy doing their own thing. We parked ourselves in dining hall and talked to anyone who was willing. There we met the MDPA sponsored motorcycle riders who were just passing though Tacloban when Yolanda unleashed her wrath. These riders were heroes! They helped everyone that needed help and save a handful of people from imminent death. They even risked their lives trying to rescue people in San Jose and in Leyte Park Hotel. They even looted food supplies downtown for the hotel guests of Leyte Park and cooked spaghetti for everyone.
While we were doing our usual rounds for information gathering, I saw the head of their riders talking to a group of crew-cut men who were apparently part of Mar Roxas’ entourage. They told the riders about the C130 planes that were bringing in relief goods from Cebu to the Tacloban airport, and that the planes are allowing civilian passengers to hitch a ride back to Cebu after unloading the goods.
The stars were aligning in our favor. We felt safe being with the media and the riders… we also had a solid chance of getting home via the C130. The news team of CNN and Aljazeera was also able to secure a satellite phone. Hoping that that they would allow us to use their satellite phone and phone home, we tailed the CNN and Aljazeera people for the rest of the day. We shadowed them, brought them food and made small talk. They were mostly aloof, except for Jam. But we understood their priorities. They needed to report what was happening. The more attention we got the better chances of us getting the help we need.
The CNN reporter even asked us if were expecting help from the US and if Mar Roxas was still in the hotel. We had no answer for them. The truth is, everyone felt abandoned by the government. Mar Roxas apparently left hours ago, we don’t even know if went through Yolanda or if flew out last night. He did his press conferences, but when push came to shove, he disappeared. The locals even commented on how the president should go down to Tacloban and see the devastation for himself. They mostly worried about the actual help that would come, considering the rift between the president and the local government – the Aquinos vs. the Marcoses.
By nightfall, the riders circulated the plan for a modern death march. They asked the people at the hotel to be at the lobby before 4am, so we can all walk together to the airport. It was going to be a long walk, and can take as long as 3 to 4 hours depending on the pace and the amount of debris on the streets. A total of 40 people were joining the walk. Everybody was united and determined.
November 10, 2013, Sunday.
We awoke to a loud banging on the door. Itwas Mica Papa, one of the reporters of GMA7. It was 2am and they just got back from Palo with the rest of the news team. Mica told Ate Love that they had two vans that would take them to the airport and that they have to go right away. Ate Love pointed to us, but Mica said we couldn’t come with them because they didn’t have space for anyone else. “Puno na tayo, masikip na”, she told Ate Love. Our hearts sank.
Ate Love, with the look of sadness in her eyes turned towards us and said sorry because they can’t take us with them. We told her we were fine with it… we still had the option to walk to the airport with the riders and the rest of the hotel guests. But as soon as they closed the door, my shoulders fell to the floor. I felt hopeless yet again. Even though we had a good chance of getting to airport, we had no way of knowing if we can ride the C130 without them.
I leaned on the door and tried to make out what they were saying out on the hallway. Nika soon followed. We stood there for a while and just looked at each other… trying to assure ourselves that we can still get out even without saying a single word. “Dun na lang tayo sa lobby, antayin natin ung riders” I told Nika. We were going to airport no matter what happens. A few seconds later, the door swung open and Ate Love told us to get our things, “you’re coming with us… kahit magpatong patong tayo sa sasakyan”.
Overjoyed but nervous about our chances, we followed Ate Love to the lobby. We followed her and Ate Suzeth like small children. Direk didn’t protest about us tagging along, but she warned us that we would have to ask permission to get on the C130. They were only given 9 slots in the manifesto; everyone else is a toss up. “Whatever it takes as long as we had a chance,” I said to myself. It was pouring outside and darkness still enveloped the hotel grounds. We just kept our fingers crossed hoping that they will take us with them. We kept our faith.
The reporter from CNN approached Ate Love before we left. He asked her why the local news team was leaving. “Are you leaving because it’s dangerous? Or because you had enough?” he asked. Ate Love looked at him and said, “I just want to be with my family”… enough said.
We walked from hotel grounds down to the main street near UP Tacloban. The terrain was a bit of challenge with obstacles from the debris, little visibility and the sludge of mud that covered our path.
We reached the vans after a couple of minutes. Standing there, we felt awkward and uncertain. We didn’t know whether to climb into the van or wait for a go signal from the news team. As we stood there, Mica didn’t stop glaring at us. We knew that we didn’t have the right to be there… we were outsiders. But more than the shame, our desire to go home was resolute.
When the rest of news team gave us the go ahead, we took our seat in the van. But before we can even move an inch, they discovered that the van had a flat tire. “It’s just another road bump”, I assured myself. Everybody exited the van while the guys looked for a spare tire and equipment.
Mica was still glaring at our direction. Maybe it was stress of the situation but she just rubbed us the wrong way. Her glares made us feel pathetic and unwelcomed. We were well aware that we were imposing and out of place… we didn’t need a constant reminder of our utter desperation. We brushed it off, but her reaction to us honestly left a bitter taste in my mouth.
On a side note, I appreciate kids being eager and overtly enthusiastic about their work. But making people feel bad by not choosing your words and sending piercing stares is just plain unnecessary, especially in times of crisis. Frankly, I was disappointed.
The technical team then asked Ate Love, Ate Suzette, the guys from Inquirer and us to go into the other van. Mica on the other hand, insisted on walking with whoever will be left behind – which fortunately they didn’t have to do. The space in the vans and the truck was enough for all of us.
After waiting for what seemed like forever, both vans were ready to roll out. We crawled our way through the streets of Tacloban, stopping occasionally to raise the power lines so that the truck that was carrying their broadcast equipment can pass through. Darkness shrouded the streets. The two vans and the truck were the only sources of light.
Staring out the window, I saw a handful of people walking towards the same direction. They were also making their way to the airport. There were also people who slept soundly on the sidewalks, while some just wandered in the cold night. The quiet was unnerving.
As we approached the airport, we saw more devastation… passing through the barangays in the coastal area. Houses were flattened out, trees were uprooted, factories were trashed, and debris piled up on top of each other. Suddenly, I felt a chill running up my spine. There were bodies were lined up on sidewalk… I covered my eyes as tightly as I could… but the image burned in my mind. Nika didn’t see the bodies but she smelled death.
It was dusk by the time reached the airport. The clouds were thick, like a huge fog looming over the city. The airport was completely wiped out. It was bare bones. Even the control tower was gutted.
Rain was pouring hard again. And though the fear of getting left behind is remains, we had faith that Ate Love and Ate Suzeth would not leave us behind. “Isa na lang. Konting konti na lang” Nika whispered. We washed our mud soaked feet in the rain and waited for the C130.
Around 7am, we finally heard an engine humming from a distant… it was the C130. We were going home at last.
We lined up with the rest of the news team and the people who have been there since the night before… waiting for a chance to get on the C130. People from all walks of life gathered around the torn up waiting area of the airport.
After checking our baggage and IDs, we were finally permitted to board. Walking up to the C130 was the happiest moment of my life. Each step we took was a step closer to getting home.
And as we took our seat across the GMA7 news team, we finally felt relief. I turned to Nika and said “Ayan na ung promise ko sayo… nakasakay din tayo ng C130”. It was a moment of triumph.
As soon as we the plane landed in Cebu, we automatically took out our cellphones and furiously dialed the numbers of our loved ones. I barely had enough battery to
call anyone, so I texted Dino first, “ Babe I’m alive! Please tell mama…” His only response was “Ok good! I had no doubt.” It made my day.
Walking on the tarmac, Nika and I hugged tightly for a while. Relived. Thankful. We wouldn’t have survived Yolanda if not for each other and the people who helped us. We each played our strengths and our optimism made everything possible.
To my surprise, my phone rang. It was my father. He was mad as expected but I heard his voice soften as I sobbed joyful tears. “Sorry na. Sorry na kung matigas ulo ko. Di naming inasahan na gano’n… at least ok kami… you’ll be proud of us”, were the only words a I can muster to appease him. He then handed the phone to my mother. My knees felt weak. I sobbed and laughed at the same time, “Ma, buhay kami. Ok kami”. That was the message we’ve been struggling to send the entire time we were in Tacloban. I had no idea that I would have the chance to personally deliver the message. “Uuwi na ko dyan maya maya, just wait for me”, I told my mother. I can hear her quiet sobs of relief. She said she hadn’t slept or eaten in days.
If she didn’t hear from me that day, she would have swam her way to Leyte she said. I repeatedly assured her that we were ok and that no harm came our way just in the nick of time.
Inside the shuttle bus that ferried the passengers of the C130 to the departure area of the Mactan Airport, Nika and I had one final play. She would run to PAL’s ticketing office and I would go to the charging station to secure a hotel room in Cebu City. But even before I had enough power to open my phone, Nika was already sprinting towards me. “Tara na. Aalis na tayo”, she yelled. Ms. Arlene of the ticketing office was so gracious to us that she booked us seats on the plane that was leaving for Manila in 30 minutes. We couldn’t believe our luck. She told us to run to the check-in counter and look for the person she called to get us in. “One final run”, we said to ourselves. The PAL people checked us in immediately and before we knew it we were on a plane to Manila.
High above the skies, we held hands and prayed. “Lord God, salamat po sa pagligtas ninyo sa amin… sa mga taong ipinadala nyo para tulungan kami. Sa mga taong naiwan namin sa Tacloban at Borongan, tulungan nyo po sila…” I’m not a religious person, but this experience brought me to realize the power of prayer. We truly felt God’s hand in every step of the way, though our guardian angel Sir Paul and all the people that inspired us and welcomed us. Even in desperate times, in the face of death and in moments of defeat… the human spirit pulls through. Now our only prayer is that Leyte, Samar and all other affected areas, would promptly receive the help that they need to put their lives back together.
We smiled through the rest of flight. The dark heavy cloud that loomed over us was no more. We were finally on our way home.
To everyone who helped us and kept us alive… Nick, Joan, Daemian, Zac, Mac Mac, Kuya Dudo, Ate Charlotte, Ate Jed, Kuya Erik, Jek Jek, Jess, Chiz, Tito Hector, JP, Kenneth, Bobby, Ate Love, Ate Suzeth, MDPA Riders, Rex, Cyrus, the hotel staff of Asia Stars Hotel and Leyte Park Hotel, Ms. Arlene of PAL, and everyone else who took the time to talk to us… THANK YOU SO MUCH! WE ARE IMMENSELY BLESSED TO HAVE CROSSED PATHS WITH ALL OF YOU! WE PRAY FOR YOUR SAFETY AND A LIFETIME OF HAPPINESS!
This past week will forever change our lives and will be forever etched in our hearts.