‘Four of us drowned’: Yolanda survivors recount escape to Surigao by sea

SURIGAO CITY (MindaNews/20 November) – Wanting to escape from hunger and the sight of death and destruction around them, 226 individuals mostly from Tacloban City in Leyte arrived here last Saturday onboard wooden motorized boats hoping to rebuild their lives after super typhoon Yolanda devastated their city and other parts of the Visayas region.

Josie Togonon describes how the storm surge caused by super typhoon Yolanda killed hundreds of people in their community in Old Road Sagkahan in Tacloban City. Josie's husband Ronnel (right) holds their 3-month old baby girl who almost fell into the water while they were trying to flee the fast rising waters. MindaNews photo by Erwin Mascarinas
Josie Togonon describes how the storm surge caused by super typhoon Yolanda killed hundreds of people in their community in Old Road Sagkahan in Tacloban City. Josie’s husband Ronnel (right) holds their 3-month old baby girl who almost fell into the water while they were trying to flee the fast rising waters. MindaNews photo by Erwin Mascarinas

Some of them, however, died trying to reach this city, the nearest point in Mindanao from the southern tip of Leyte Island.

“Our boat sank and everyone fell into the water, others panicked while trying to save their children. Four of the passengers drowned, and there was nothing we can do but to keep on going. What happened was so hard for us that it’s not easy to talk about it,” Julius Romojo, a fisherman, said as he took a deep breath while holding his wife’s hand.

Remojo suggested that the dead bodies found in Dinagat might have been the people from their boat or from either of the other boats.

He was almost in tears and touching the wound in his right leg while recounting their trip to Surigao.

Ronnel Togonon, 31, a native of Butuan City who had lived in Tacloban for the past four years was in a boat with his wife and four children and 24 more people.

“We were about 30 people from four families in one boat. They were all neighbors trying to help each other out to survive. We left Tacloban a day after Yolanda hit the city,” Togonon said.

“With the death all around us, the destruction and angry, hungry people getting agitated, we know we have to leave no matter how risky it all sounded,” he added.

Aurilla Buco, 64, from Bagakay in Tacloban also shared the ordeal that she and her family went through.

“After the storm, we lost everything, our clothes were wet and we have nothing else left. Three of my children and their three children walked with us across Tacloban for a day passing by the corpses, debris, trees and destroyed homes and buildings. It was a horrific sight but we pushed on to find food for the kids,” said Buco.

She added it was faith and prayer that kept them going.

“The smell of the dead was all around us but we kept on praying that hopefully we will be saved. On the fourth day after Yolanda hit us, we meet someone who was looking for people who would be willing to travel by motorized boat to Surigao,” she went on.

“It was God’s way of saving us. We were desperate and hungry so we said yes. Along the way our boat bumped with dead bodies floating in the ocean. We just kept on going. Some of the other boats got lost and we never saw them again.

“We left at around 5:00 in the morning and arrived here at 8:00 in the evening,” she recalled.

Buco added she is happy they decided to go with the boats, and hoped the others would be rescued.

She was planning to bring her family back to her native town in Sarangani.

The people who survived the sea voyage arrived in Claver town, Surigao del Norte but decided to move here after learning that an evangelical mission group was in the city to help typhoon survivors.

Storm surge

Romojo was working in Soloan, Guiuan town in Samar when Yolanda struck. He took a small boat to go back to his wife in Barangay 60-A, Tacloban a day after.

“When the tides went up in Guiuan, we were in the water and hid in the mangroves while heading towards Leyte. When we reached Tacloban, my wife was not home and I had to find her in the evacuation sites. We immediately left with 13 other people by a small boat headed for Surigao,” he said.

Togonon meanwhile recalled that several people panicked when the seawater started to rise and flood their place. “We were all shocked that the waters covered the entire community in just a few minutes.”

“I held my three-month old baby daughter with one hand and my three-year old daughter with the other. I can’t describe my fear that day but I have to be brave for my family especially when I almost lost hold of my baby. Thank God I had the strength to keep on holding them tight,” he said.

Josie, Ronnel’s wife, said they were so frightened they just dropped everything they were carrying and started running away from the rising tide.

“I asked my elder child to run with my sibling, and then I shouted to my neighbors to do the same. We passed by several people who were carrying their televisions, rice cooker, electric fans and asked them to leave them behind or else the rising waters will swallow them up.

“All the appliances in the world are nothing compared to the lives of your loved ones. To survive you have to save yourselves and not the material things,” said Josie.

Aubrey Mae Ortiz said it was a miracle that saved her baby daughter from the storm surge.

“My husband was in Guiuan, Samar where he is working as a boat builder when Yolanda hit us. The waters suddenly reached us while were trying to flee. I was holding my 1-year old child on one hand and my 1-month baby on the other.

“When I realized that my baby was not anymore in my hand I shouted for help. I saw her being carried away by the current, but a stranger saved her and gave her back to me,” she said.

Ortiz was eventually reunited with her husband two days after. But she never saw again the person who saved her daughter.

Charles Sickles, evangelist and director of the Fruitful Harvest International Ministry who runs a mission house said they never thought twice about helping the boat people from Leyte.

“Initially a boat captain from this place who is also a member of our church was the one who got in touch with these people. First we got 63 individuals who have families from different parts of Mindanao, we thought they were just few but then we got an additional 163 people coming in and we had no choice but to help them. The last group arrived last Saturday, they came from different parts of Surigao where they docked after escaping the wrath of Typhoon Yolanda in Leyte,” said Sickles.

“We tried to comfort them and glad that a representative from the city health came in and interviewed them family by family. Unfortunately, the doctor came back with grief because of the horrible stories they brought with them, especially those who lost their loved ones. One of those is the 28 years old man who lost his pregnant wife, two children and home. It’s just an overwhelming odd, and all we can do is give out our support whatever we can,” he said.

The American evangelist added he is happy with the help coming in from other groups and individuals in Surigao City and other areas.

“They have given us additional meals, supplies and clothing for the survivors. Most of them heard the situation here through Facebook and other news groups like on the radio. It is with great heart and love that we thank you, these people and groups for reaching out and spreading the word. We are all relying to Jesus Christ and he does work in mysterious ways in reaching out for these survivors,” Sickles said.

According to the survivors, the person who Sickles said lost his pregnant wife was Roel Etac, a resident of Barangay 60, Tacloban.

Sixty-three of the first group of people to arrive in the mission compound had already left for their respective destinations in Davao, Compostela Valley and Agusan del Sur after receiving additional money for transportation and food. (Erwin Mascarinas/MindaNews)